Of Mud and Muck

A smattering of clockwork stars filtered through a lens of clean, desolate air and a mineral laden wind, the gears of a lonely night time sky. I am visiting my Aunt and Uncle on their acres of wild property up in Northern Maine, in a little town contiguous to Bar Harbor. They have a small, efficient house set close to jagged shoreline bordering a tidal, estuarine influx.

I throw on a pair of Blue Lugz I’ve had since college. They’re like the boot that will outlive a nuclear holocaust, they look the same as they did when I first started wearing them… And, I have not one but TWO pairs kicking around (Make a mental note, a good friend with  practical footwear in post-apocalyptic times would not be bad to have).

You can walk through the muck of the salt marshes along the shore all the way to the edge of the quiet road their property borders. We’re tottering at the edge of winter here, and at first glance the landscapes muted tones – grey, beige, tan – speak to an impression of dying.  The shore line is littered with the skeletal ghosts of downed trees.

The littering of the small, pitiful empty carapaces of crabs feel like a pirate’s warning. This is not unlike a morose marker of another sort I spotted here last summer. I saw these small snotty circles caught in the marsh grasses at irregular intervals.  It took me a few minutes to realize these were the dismal remains of moon jellies, a cosmopolitan species that experience a population burst (what marine scientists typically call a “bloom”) in the late summer months. The dried whispers of jellyfish that once were, sat withering under the sun while their clueless, unsuspecting brethren bobbed along in small tidal pools entrained nearby in the masses of mud.

Currently, the signs of life here are slight, but appear in unexpected places. I’ve had the ability watch salt marshes turn with the seasons, and the markers of change can be fascinating – the types of color that glitter through your purview, the sounds, and the glimpses of the creatures that slip through. I’ve scared foxes, deer, purple herons – you name, I’ve probably startled it. But even the annual dying of a salt marsh has a certain biological delicacy and beauty to it.

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Day 8 – Oh The Places We Will Go

This is an especially early morning for the Schuman clan as we need to get to La Mansion Inn for a mysterious 7 am pickup. As luck would have it, we caught Charlie’s call yesterday – the phone started ringing as soon as we stepped foot in the room. We confirmed horseback riding with his friend Claudia, but he was told another couple is interested in coming along and he asks if they can bum a ride with us to Matapalo.

We have no idea what to expect but the relaxed air of Costa Rica has given us open minds and we are channeling “pura vida.” We sit and wait in the lobby until connecting with Darren and Nicole, a couple from LA, the same place Charlie originally hails from. Darren works in law (to be honest, at one point as the day wore on, Darren gave me a much more elegant description of the way his firm works and the exciting things they do for businesses, but I’m not sure I can recount what he told me without screwing it up), and Nicole is a nurse practitioner at a pediatric office. She knows español due to the patient population she works with, and has been surprising the locals most places with her ability keep up with the language. We instantly take a liking to one another and fill the car with chatter as we drive down to Matapalo for an 8 am rendezvous with Charlie.

Horseback Riding with Claudia - Playa Matapalo (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Matapalo is a little Costa Rican town, more rural and removed from the noise and bustle of the Manuel Antonio/Quepos area. We see kids playing soccer outside a school as we pass over a narrow little bridge, and a man who has precariously piled his whole family on one bicycle. Charlie will later tell us that the population of this area has been unlucky enough to be touched by the ill effects of illegal drugs. It’s not a common problem in the country, but too many playboy tourists have left their mark here. Still, there are lots of smiles and positive people in the community. Matapalo is also not as blemished from the tourism industry and we hold our breath a little when we first see Playa Matapalo.

Charlie meets us at a little soda on a road parallel to the beach and walks us back to Claudia’s house where she and her family are getting horses ready for the morning. She has a quick conversation to determine which horses will suit which rider. Nicole gets Amigo, a very easy horse to ride but who has a bit of a wink in his eye and a propensity for trouble making. Rob gets Caiman, a feisty Tico pony with selective hearing. I ride Shakira, a sassy pony who is a little round in the middle from spending a few months at pasture from a false pregnancy, and who will prompt me to jokingly say during the morning ride – “Hey, I think mine is overheating.” Due to my poor memory, Darren rides a “horse with no name”. Claudia gives a tutorial about riding, instructing us how to comfortably sit in the saddle, not to rely heavily on grasping the horn, to hold the reins with a light touch, and how to motion the horse to turn to the right or left.

My Trusty Steed, Shakira (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Claudia - a Horse's View (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We set out to the playa (beach) and begin walking along the longest stretch of uninterrupted white sand I’ve ever laid eyes on, the tidal pools of still water are a rugged mirror reflecting cloud after cloud. I keep pace with Claudia, often leaving everyone else behind and when we wait for our friends to catch up, she lets me practice making circles with Shakira. She reminds us that horses sense intention, and our body language will help us while we ride. There are a handful of dogs running around the horses’ feet, with sabotage on their minds. Rob sidles up with Caiman and we begin asking Claudia about her story.

She tells us she has been in Costa Rica fifteen years, just five shy of Charlie. Her home country is (or was?) Switzerland. She originally was studying big cats and came to CR just for that reason, but somehow fell into working with horses and over time began her own stable. As we talk, the dogs spot little sand crabs along the length of the beach. Most manage to pop back into their holes right before being reached by canine teeth, but one unfortunate crab has become their play thing.

Horse and Mangroves (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We stop to look at the wild knotted roots of the mangroves. Claudia warns us not to get too close as the other day, one of her horses was up to his belly in the soft, unstable sand. After taking the view in for a few minutes, we head back and the horses become sassier with the notion that they are closer to home. “No, Amigo. No!” echos out a few times as Nicole tries to keep him from extracurricular snacking along the path. Amigo is also the horse to greedily lap up all the coconut milk after Rob shimmies up a tree to get some with Claudia’s help. Mangroves have turned into palms, and fruit trees, including sweet lemon.

Matapalo Palms (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

When the horses are free again to roam riderless, we walk through Claudia’s property. She explains that they built the house themselves. There are many different types of plants,  including fruit trees, herbs and spices, and those with medicinal value.  There is also a host of wild things and happenings right behind her house where some estuarine flow seeps in. A Caiman slithers in to grab a dead chicken thrown to the earth for predators like him. Basilisk lizards with strange crests tug at the other scraps in the yard.  We see a variety of strange birds, including the Northern Jacana, pick through the tree roots for things to eat.

Un ID'ed bird behind Claudia's House (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We meet Claudia’s gangly little girl Lisa when we sit down to eat guava and star fruit. Nicole is instantly popular when she pulls out a bag of Chips A-Hoy cookies and passes a couple of them to Lisa and her friend that is staying over. Claudia sends us up the street to visit with Charlie. Charlie’s house is  a stone’s throw from the surf and seems to be populated with teenagers. We find out he has family ties with some, and provides mentoring for others.

Northern Jacana (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We opt to forgo possible excursions to see more waterfalls, or eat at restaurants, all in favor of swimming in salty, sun-kissed waves. They are big here,but more manageable than the ones we encountered at Playa Manuel Antonio. Rob and Darren even spot manta rays riding the crest of the waves towards shore.

Before leaving to spend a full and fun evening with Darren and Nicole including a phenomenal dinner at Kapi Kapi, we promise Charlie we’ll be back the next day for a surf lesson on our final morning before heading to San Jose. The rest of the night is a mix and match of experiences, the quirkiest being our late night trip to the local “super-mercado” where Nicole hones in on this box of Choco (chocolate) Zucaritas. Mind you, just about other sugar cereal you can think of lines the shelves with the original names still in English. Choco Zucaritas however, features a buff Tony the Tiger on his knees in a muddy soccer field, dark skies overhead, in the pouring rain looking like he is channeling some mad emotion. These Tico’s take their frosted flakes seriously here, man! Nicole buys a little one-serving size, and Tony the Tiger soon becomes the Daihatsu mascot. “Tony is my co-pilot”…

Day 7 – Wild Nights Are Calling

View of Casitas Eclipse (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We sleep in for the first time since setting foot in Costa Rica. We soon discover two things. First of all, anything hand-washed in the name of being practical will never dry… ever. Secondly, our next three breakfasts will be to the strangest soundtrack of US music ever compiled. The newest Red Hot Chili Pepper’s track will be followed with Simon and Garfunkel, and then most distressingly by Kenny G.

The Manuel Antonio National Park is a short drive down the road from where we are staying. We park our little mud-streaked Daihatsu near a bus-stop populated with opportunistic tour guides (who will try to maintain the official air of being associated with park,which they are not). This is what kicks off our fateful encounter with Mauricio, who promises that the amount of wildlife we will see in the park will be negligible with what he can show us for $20 a head, money back guarantee if we don’t agree with his conjecture after half an hour into the tour. This will set off a whirlwind of the wildest stories I have perhaps ever heard from one man. Just a seed of truth would delight me.

Costa Rican stink bug (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio has a rugged Swarovski-brand telescope and tripod slung over his shoulder as he leads us into the park after paying his entrance fee (another clue he is not an officially park-sanctioned guide). Right near the entrance, he alerts us to the presence of a species of land crab that dwells in the rainforest. We soon discover, while overly confident and willing to sing his own praises, he is absolutely spot on about his abilities to point out the seemingly elusive wild-life. He has learned the ranges of animals living within the park and once something of note is spotted within the park, it appears a sort of altruistic exchange of information takes places among the guides.

He points out plants along our route – ones used to weave textiles for clothing or other useful purposes, but mostly he focuses on those plants with medicinal value – anti-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering – the problems a rainforest can solve with more completeness than modern medicine. Mauricio tells us he was raised in the jungle by his mama before the area was turned into a national park, that his uncle was responsible for the now wide-spread availability of anti-venin for snakes such as the Fer-de-Lance and his visage graces an old version of the 2000 colones bill. He explains all this while we munch on the sweet flowers he hands us from a Heliconia plant.

Golden Orb Spider (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

He begins to tell us about his son who is currently studying in the States (Los Estados Unidos) and about his wife that died from cancer when his son was just two years old. But he also tempers the situation with a tale about monkeys who once dragged his baby part-way down the beach while he and his wife swam unknowingly near-by.

In the midst of his recanting, he sets his scope to focus on a baby three-toed sloth all the while relating the somewhat fantastic story of this animal’s relationship with the Cecropia tree it spends the majority of its time in. The Cecropia tree provides the sloth with lots of alkaloids (a diverse group of chemicals, some having medicinal or even toxic effects. This same group of compounds makes poison arrow frogs harmful.) – a good energy source for the sloth. If a sloth has young baby and has to wander from its tree, which happens rarely, it can leave the young sloth nestled among the Cecropia’s dead leaves, where it is well-camouflaged.

Dead cecropia leaves

However, once the baby is old enough to start eating (at around 6 months), Mauricio tells us the mom will leave her offspring in some other type of tree as it is thought the alkaloid content of the Cecropia tree is too strong for the sloth until he has amassed a more significant body weight. (Read more about both the two-toed and three-toed sloth’s ecology here).

Cecropia trees are also known to harbor stinging Azteca ants that have formed a symbiosis with the tree, often living within its core and pouring out of the tree’s trunk to ward off invading insects or other herbivores, and on occasion, an unlucky human or two. However, the sloth can live and eat in the trees un-vexed, primarily due to another partnership formed with the sloth (Sloths also have an untold number of additional relationships with species of insects and algae that can be found living in their coats.). This one may have to do with the habit of the sloth to defecate once a week or less, by carefully creeping to the bottom of the tree, doing its business, then burying its feces. For lack of a better descriptor, the sloth poo is likely an excellent source of nutrients for the ants.

Manuel Antonio - lizard (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Mauricio describes the emerging problem of Columbian drug runners approaching guides and other lookouts to start serving out as lookouts for them on beaches. Mauricio claims skills as a pilot at a nearby airstrip and says he works for the police in the evenings after his days serving as a park guide. He continues his tales while pulling down a cluster of maroon fruit from a nearby tree. Eating them is a similar process to eating the mamon chin I mentioned in an earlier post. You must bite into the outer skin to get at the tangy fruit inside and suck on it to avoid swallowing the pit. He only knows it by the name “uva”, spanish for “grape.” He hands us small slices of lemon from trees growing right near the sand and explains the salt content of the fruit changes during the dry and rainy seasons. He tells us he and his mama used to leave little dishes of lemon juice out to evaporate and would use the sea salt left behind.

He continues to point out more wildlife, including lesser white-lines bats, golden orb and arrow-shaped spiders, and smooth-billed anis. He carefully pulls down a leaf to show us a tarantula with her spiderlings menacingly nestled in the base of a leaf. Even while leading us out of the park at the end of the tour he is advocating for more local experiences, including trying ceviche from a trusted vendor on the beach – a mix of fresh shellfish, onions, and a local version of cilantro, all marinated in citrus juice which helps to mimic cooking the raw seafood. Costa Ricans often eat the mixture with hot sauce, ketchup, and mayonnaise added to the broth.  There are also men walking the beach with machetes and coconuts, ready to hack off the top and hand you a straw so you can enjoy the milk inside. One of these men is a very tall and skinny man who has the lowest voice I may have ever heard. Mauricio tells us this man once worked in television in has native country of Mexico due to this very trait.

Tarantula and spiderlings (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We will come back later to swim at a beach bearing the park’s name – Playa Manuel Antonio. It’s a stunning white sand beach. When we ask a local if there are any shells around, he points us to the hollowed-stump of a tree likely downed during some previous storm and crawling with a colony of rather large hermit crabs. My objective of snorkeling around the near-by rocks is quickly left by the wayside as I lose my snorkel not 5 minutes after wading out into the waves. I have never swam in the Pacific and the water is bath-tub warm and very saline.  I also however, have never experienced the sheer engine of energy behind these kind of waves. It is high tide and with just our feet in the surf, there are several occasions when a large wave will pull us under, scrape us along the bottom, and hold us there, never letting us go until it once again ebbs back out to sea. My pockets quickly fill with sand and it becomes evident that if I wish to snorkel or dive in Costa Rica, I will have to book a boat trip or two during my next visit.

We are exhausted. We just manage to take advantage of the hotel’s 50% off Sundays at their restaurant, the gato negro (the black cat) and fall into a dead sleep for the next four or five hours rousing only enough energy afterwards to stumble back into the gato negro for dessert. As we head back to our little villa, we hear the strangest cries emanating from a little owl perched on a nearby tree and are reminded just how wild everything here really is…

Day 6 – With Many Stops Along the Journey

At 5 am, our feline friend “Alejandro” (see previous post) decides to start wailing outside our door in the hope we will let him to roam indiscriminately for a few minutes until he is ready to leave and harass his new found friends next door. Yep folks, cats are the same no matter where you go.

It’s hard to go back to sleep but we get a couple more hours of shut-eye before stumbling off to breakfast. A few different species of hummingbirds amass around feeders hung around the lodge’s porch, including a very large variety known as the violet saberwing. We talk to an older couple who have been to the country 7 or 8 times and are currently in a Spanish immersion school.

Monteverde Orchid Garden (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Before heading southward to Manual Antonio, we make a stop at the Monteverde Orchid Garden in Santa Elena. At best guess the bubbly girl who shows us through the garden is no more than 19. She reveals that before this job, she worked at the local butterfly garden but was skeeved out by the caterpillars. She appears happy to be surrounded by the scent of flowers. Before starting the walk, she quickly describes the structure all orchids have varying around the theme of petals, sepals, and labellum. While it is counter intuitive, it appears many orchids are actually very minuscule and often epiphytic (they take up real estate on the surface of other, larger plants). She points out flowers that emit delicate odors, and other that have a savory aroma – one in particular smells faintly like chicken soup. Some are exotically strange in their appearance, almost alien. A visual highlight is an orchid whose flowers resemble tiny little people.

Orchids with faces - Monteverde Orchid Garden (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

The beautiful detail of it all, is each orchid has its own unique pollinator – in most cases varieties of insects,  but research has discovered at least one species whose successful pollination hinges on its relationship with a species of mouse. And most of these delicate flowers are fast in an evolutionary battle of seduction, honing their colors, their aromas, their shapes and whatever wiles may be at their disposal all in the name of reproduction. In addition, the success of an orchid is intimately intertwined with fungi that nutrify the orchid through it’s root system, forming a symbiotic complex called a mycorrhiza.

If all those details are not fantastic enough, your last stop at the orchid garden has you on hands and knees,magnifying glass in hand, peering at Platystele jungermannioides, the smallest known flowering orchid in the world (though it looks like it’s record might soon be challenged). Rob has me hold a pencil tip close to the flower for purposes of scale, while he snaps a few photos.

Platystele jungermannioides - Smallest Flowering Orchid (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We leave Santa Elena to its thoughts and start to wind down towards Manuel Antonio, our last scheduled stop for the trip. Roads slowly turned into paved throughways. We stop at a roadside stand and pick out three or four snacks with a great deal of excited expectation and are sorely disappointed when we find out we have inadvertently purchased some bitter sugared grapefruit along with several other things that look a whole helluva lot better than they taste. Rob also adeptly negotiates with a gas station attendant who tries to overcharge us by $30.

We pass over the Tárcoles River, apparently one of the most sewage-polluted rivers in the country, and park near the police check point, a recent step in discouraging the tourist-targeted mugging incidents the bridge is reputed for. We follow lines of people milling about the sides peering down at the considerably sized specimens of American Crocodile below.

American Crocodile - Tárcoles River (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Once on the road again, rolling hills soon give way to miles and miles of palm trees planted in long parallel lines. These are African palms, harvested for their oil, a major export of the region. Quepos, the little town above Manual Antonio has a long intimate history with the practice. Manual Antonio hosts the most visited national park in the country.

We check into our hotel, the Casitas Eclipse, and minutes after putting our things down in the top level of the Mediterranean-style villa we will stay in for the next three nights, a Toucan alights on the adjacent tree and starts picking at some berries of the top-most branches.  An afternoon storm that is responsible for knocking out internet access to the region for the next three days passes through throwing out haphazard bolts of lightning. We take a quick and dark walk behind the hotel grounds and find the mother-lode of red-eyed tree frogs on some tarps covering a water trough of some kind.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We receive sub-par service at El Avion, a restuarant/bar across the street. The bar is constructed in the gutted interior of a cold war era plane. The back of the wine list recounts the history of the airplane,taking great panes to emphasize the United States’ rather large part in shady dealings within Nicaragua during the 80’s. We are seated in the back, and though dinner left something to be desired, I don’t think there exists enough words in the world to convey the view. The combination of murky hillsides set with the small glowing lights of domestic life, the small thin wavering line of the surf, the rolling soundscape of tropical life, the air hung heavy with the dew of the storm, the errant, brilliant effulgence of the dying lightning – all burned a surreal moment into my mind’s memory that I cannot share with anyone who will not see the exact same dream themselves.

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Casitas Eclipse Gecko (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Our evening will next take us to a little bar called “The Bat Cave”, part of an up-scale hotel called “La Mansion Inn.”  Entrance to the bar is granted only via a tiny little door meant to give the place an exotic feel furthered by the simulated cave wall running the length of the bar stools. We watch the hipster Costa Rican bartender mix our drinks (mine a virgin daquiri) with Dexter-like precision, measuring every amount of alcohol being mixed and even donning gloves for some strange reason. It was a spectacle which produced unremarkable drinks. Our whole trip took a more remarkable turn when a man named Charlie walked in to take over bartending for the night. As we soon found out, his style of pouring little swigs of this and that into the blender with a significantly lower dose of precision and some haphazard, all the while producing tasty concoctions, was telling of his personality and take on life as a whole.

After a few minutes of casual conversation, Charlie reveals he is originally from Los Angeles but has lived in Costa Rica for the past twenty years of his life. On a whim, I ask Charlie for some suggestions about things to do in the area, most specifically regarding wildlife. I tell him we are planning on taking Sunday to visit Manuel Antonio National Park as it will be closed on Monday and he promises to get a hold of us and has suggested we meet his friend Claudia, and go horseback riding along the beach in Matapalo, the town where he lives. This will prove to be a fantastic choice but we will not know this for at least another day. For now, we drive back to sleep sated dreams.

Day 3 – Welcome to the Jungle (Or “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”)

Volcán Arenal - a clear view (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

This is an early day for us. The volcano is in full breathtaking view, in contrast to most of  the day before. The volcano had been shrouded with mist a good portion of the time, sometimes confusing the casual viewer into believing there really was no volcano at all.

We catch breakfast at 6:30. We are slated to go out on a “Safari Float Tour” – we have a voucher from the company we booked with, and are expecting a very tourist-centric experience which hardly turns out to be the case. Our shuttle stops at another local hotel to pick up Dustin and Emily, two newlyweds from Colorado on their honeymoon in Costa Rica. We all chat on the ride over to the  Peñas Blancas River where our experience will begin. We find out more about our guide Jamie (pronounced Hi-may). He has a family in a nearby town and has two little girls – one three-year old, and one kindergartener-aged. He has worked for various touring companies in the area (as most of the guides will allude to over the rest of our trip as well. It seems there is fidelity to an industry, but not always to a specific company), but likes this particular job as he has more opportunity to interact and chat with the people he’s guiding as compared to more intense activities like white water rafting. He often times works six days a week, and can at times be slated for a 10 hour day. Tourism is considered quite the opportunity in the region, but is only a realistic option for those that are bilingual in the country, a percentage he estimates at around 50%.

"Gallery" forest on either side of the Peñas Blancas River (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We reach the banks of the river and pour out of the van into the early morning stickiness. Jamie and Antonio, the driver, pull a thick rubber raft from the backseat and begin inflating it. We don life jackets and push off moments after arriving. I grin at Antonio who is looking on from the shore, and the corners of his mouth respond in kind, confirming a smile is indeed a universal language. Jamie is able to control the raft with little assistance and begins to explain why the area is of interest. He points out the large trees whose root systems hold the banks of the river stable. The forest along the sides of the river are known as “gallery forests” due to the abundance of wildlife along them. The trees that meet over the river serve as biological corridors of sorts, allowing living creatures to cross from one side to the other and ensuring we have plenty to look at.

We see several birds flitting about including the scarlet-rumped tanager, a sharp-looking little bird with a iridescent red back. The strange, reptilian movements of the snake bird, or anhinga capture our attention. Sand pipers run along the river’s edge. We start to see the small specimens of crocodile that frequent the river along muddy banks. The locals still choose to swim in the river and are apparently unconcerned about their presence. Basilisks, also commonly referred to as Jesus Christ lizards apparently due to their propensity for running across the water’s surface, are spotted along branches of trees at various junctures along the river.

Jaime, who seems to know a wealth of information about most of Costa Rica’s 800 species of birds, bats, and many of its other flora and fauna, points out howler monkeys lounging in some nearby trees and seems to be communing with them as he lets out a string of sounds that sound suspiciously just like the ones coming from the monkey’s tree.

Halfway along our river journey, we stop at a local farm to snack on mild cheese, plantains, and a special sweet bread made from a starchy vegetable of some kind . Chickens and roosters run haphazardly along the length of the property, popping out in amusing and hilarious places. There is a little orange and white cat with a crooked tail looking for attention. The Costa Rican attitude towards dogs and cats are very different from our own. They find our propensity for letting our pets sleep on the bed very strange. All the farm’s inhabitants have recently been amused by a tourist who picked up the feline and started kissing it.

The first cat in our story, but certainly not the last (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We get to meet Don Pedro, the 99 year old owner of the farm and the surrounding land. He loves to pose for photos with visitors, uttering the countdown “1,2,3 – whiskey!” before the shutter clicks. Two of his daughters care for him. They also seem intensely interested in the fact that Rob and I are twins (gemelos in Spanish), and recount additional anecdotes concerning the subject.

We continue our journey with more crocodiles slipping by the raft and some definite mis-identifications. Jamie has coined terms like “log-o-dile” and “branch-o-dile” for our blunders. We get to chatting about alcohol, technology, and politics, so it feels like we could be sitting at anyone’s kitchen table, shooting the breeze. It’s nice.

We drag ourselves out of the raft at the end and into a blessedly air-conditioned van. The tour company has one more stop for us however, at the Las Iguanas Restaurante, where piles of vegetables lie in wait for the masses of fat, lazy iguanas on the premises.

We go into town later to eat at a local soda (basically small, local Costa Rican eateries) and watch the afternoon storm come in. I failed to mention in earlier posts that we are here during the rainy season. The country gets up to a yearly average of 180 + inches of rainfall in some regions. We see the skies darken and the locals run for cover. I’ve made the mistake of ordering a hamburger in a place that does not specialize in hamburgers, and as I munch on the strangely crispy, wafer-thin version of comfort food from home,  I hear the whirr of the generator kicking on behind us.

We have another voucher that came with our booking for a night hike around the Volcano but I am exhausted once back at the hotel and can barely move. While I go off for my first massage ever, Robert decides to partake in the second adventure of the day, and comes back with a far-away picture of a toucan, more breath-taking visuals of the volcano, and a sighting of a mot mot which is a fascinating local bird. They are lovely, with two prominent tail feathers naked except for small circular tufts at the ends. Folk lore attributes the missing feathers to an origin story of the world.  The gods asked all the animals to help build the earth, but the mot mot shirked its duty and hid in a hole with his  tail feathers exposed. The other animals grew angry and pulled the feathers from his posterior. When the gods came to see the animal’s final work, the mot mot strutted about as if he had assisted. The gods, seeing his tail feathers, knew of the deceit and the mom mot was banished to live in a hole in the ground. Consequently, they do nest in depressions in the earth as we found out later in our trip.

We both lay down for a few minutes intending to drag ourselves off to a 24 hour soda in town but fast fall asleep early, which is a trend we will repeat at least a couple more times before our trek is done.

Day 2 – When Night Falls

In the evening, I am excited to go on an ecology-focused hike with the Arenal Oasis company touting interaction with frogs, snakes, and other local wildlife. Apparently, not everyone gets as excited as I do, as I’m the only one waiting in the lobby a few minutes before 5:30. Gerald, the guide, picks me up at the hotel and we chat about the area. He informs me that people call the combination of much older, adjacent volcano called Cerro Chato and Arenal the sleeping Indian. In profile, the two volcanos appear to form a sleeping Indian with a sloping forehead, two lips and a chin, a bulbous belly, and Arenal forms the feet. I also find out that Gerald speaks excellent English because he had the opportunity to live with his aunt for two years in New York. The lack of a language barrier sets a precedent for the evening with a multitude of nerdy exchanges (I wish I could use the word “cerebral” here, but I think I need to call it what it is) on the local biota.

Arenal Oasis is an interesting project with an ecological conservation and sustainability bent. There are a series of cabins built over time that comprise their “eco-lodge” where guests can stay at their location in La Fortuna. The gardens are maintained organically. The night hike explores the nature reserve they’ve created on their property out of what was once a cattle field.

The night is thrilling. The sound scape sharpens in the rainforest as most of the wildlife is nocturnally active. We chat about the issue of invasive species (not as intense an issue as there is so much diversity, it’s hard for any one species to overtake an entire area) and Costa Rica’s attitude towards conservation (from what I gather, it’s much like a facebook status – “it’s complicated” but it appears there is some infrastructure for it ).

We start by exploring some of the local flora. There are local species of impatients which are similar to ones we have in the states. With a light touch, their seed pods burst open. It turns out, there is a small coil that is responsible for the pods breaking apart – a sort of naturally produced spring. Many of the plants here have broad leaves exhibiting countershading – green on the surface, deep maroon on the undersides, allowing them to absorb sunlight reflected off the ground. Others, like the plant locals commonly call “maracas”, have modified leaves meant to capture water opportunistically (Part of a Genus of plants called “Heliconias” that share similar characteristics). People have been known to shake the slightly ginger-smelling water from these plants and use the mixture as shampoo or as a natural insect repellent. Another similar, flattened version of the same adaptation is sported by a plant commonly called the “rattlesnake plant”. These plants also flower in stages from the base upward, allowing them to flower for upwards to a month, and making their resources last longer.

"Maracas" - a plant in the Heliconia Genus (http://www.heliconias.net/)

We also see some of the large flat leaves with careful incisions along their lateral lengths. Portions of them are now bowed into a tent of sorts, apparently due to the action of  local species of bats that use them as shelter. We see a toad hop by on the path. He hops away until he is certain we cannot see him, then freezes in a sense of mock security. Gerald explains the difference between toads and frogs – some of them obvious – scaly, drier skin, less aquatic – other less so – the presence of paratoid (poison) glands behind their eye sockets. (Apparently the distinction between these two groups on a scientific level is not always so straight-forward) Arenal Oasis has also set up a slew of terrarium exhibits along the pathway to showcase species from the area as well as other parts of Costa Rica.

Bats use many of the local species of plants for a place to sleep (http://www.thenighttour.com/alien2/tent_making_bats.htm)

We start peaking at the tanks containing a series of frog species. Costa Rica has several types of poison arrow frogs, but they are hardly as toxic as those from other countries. They can cause numbness, tingling, mild sickness. They are delicate and beautiful, and quite minuscule – significantly smaller than expected. Several species are good examples of the effect of natural barriers on phenological features. There are several species on the opposite coast of the country that are visually very similar except for a different stripe of color or proportion of colors to one another.

We also discuss the different reproductive strategies of varied families of frogs – those that lay eggs in the water, on top of the water, in trees, or spread among varied locations in order to increase their progeny’s chance for survival. Some even go as far as carrying newly hatched tadpoles on their backs to more suitable habitat.  A Cane Toad looks menacingly from behind glass of one tank (see my previous post on Cane Toads) . There is another frog known as the chicken-eating frog who is known to on occasion eat itself to death due to what has been suggested to be a poor memory about the dinner it just consumed.

While we are looking at the first exhibit, it begins to rain – thunder and lightning bursting in the sky above. It’s the first time I begin to notice how nervous people in the region are when it comes to lightning. Rain phases few, but the lightning causes some worried looks to fleet across many of our guides’ faces. However, the storm allows the evening to take a strong biological turn. The level of sound rolls up a notch and animals start to come out in droves. We pass by the frog pond and see examples of many local species, including the red-eyed tree frog, one of the most photographed rainforest fauna – in essence becoming a sort of rainforest mascot.

Red-eyed Tree Frog (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Other forms of life are enjoying the rainfall which is apparently essential to the flow of nutrients from the tree canopy to the forest floor. Snakes are delicately coiled among overhead branches, one of the reasons it is a poor choice to indiscriminately pull at branches without first glancing at what you are touching. We see an eyelash viper, one of Costa Rica’s poisonous species overhead. They are present in multiple color variations and utilize differing habitat space within their ecosystem. We see a lovely little black and white snake overhead elegantly coiling in and out of itself (I later determine this was most likely a coral snake).

The insects are fully active as well. A female katydid with an ovipositor the length of its body quietly sits under a branch while a nearby terrifyingly large spider launches itself, swinging back and forth in its attempt to capture the nearby bug. A bullet ant crawls along the length of a stem. They are called bullet ants not because of their size but because of the pain of their sting.

We quickly lose track of time as we both chat about the biology and fascinating things about the area. On the ride back home, I ask about the tourism in the area and what things have been like since the volcano has gone dormant. La Fortuna has only become a player in the country’s tourist game somewhere in the space of the last 30 years or so, but it’s interesting their future is based upon an ecological phenomenon with such an unstable and unpredictable nature. I hope they are able to continue sharing the awe-inspiring beauty of the rainforest there for some time to come.

Day 1 – You Can’t Get There From Here (Or “The Road to La Fortuna”)

I have been waiting for this moment. We set off for the airport courtesy of Robert’s friend Jason, who will be house-sitting while we’re gone. It’s the uncivilized hour of 3 am – Rob has not slept at all, and I have had 3 or 4 hours of agitated sleep. Our flight is slated for Miami and then another into Costa Rica. Waiting in line to check baggage, we hear a murmer from another traveler that the 5:25 flight to Miami has been canceled. Set back number 1. However, Rob and I are both roll with the punches sort of people so we kindly chat with the airline representative about how we will manage to actually set foot in Costa Rica. She puts us on a slightly later flight into Miami and we end up with a five hour layover waiting for our final flight. We sit in an exit row which, besides the altruistic goal of agreeing to help people should the plane engage in any blackbox sort of behavior, allows us some blessed leg room on a crowded 757.

We touch down in San Jose at around 5:30 pm, except in Costa Rica, it is 3:30 pm. We drag our belongings into the lines waiting for security and customs. The customs official places the first stamp in my passport and nods positively in response to my nervous energy and excitement.

We leave the airport to find a raucous mess of tour companies all trying to find their patrons. Destination Costa Rica, the middle-middle man, who has handled most of our bookings, will shuffle us to our rental car, but not before a sly unaffiliated, slightly ratty-looking man tries to direct us into a competitor’s van. Europcar robs us blind when charging for their full-coverage insurance option. This is not entirely to be unexpected as Costa Rican driving involves a little dose of crazy and a larger one of chutzpah, and some kind of insurance is mandatory in the country. They have “upgraded” us to a Daihatsu – a little Japanese SUV whose names means “beautiful small”. Dark is already setting in due to our later arrival time and the sky is overcast – it is the rainy season after all.

Our little Diahatsu. It got progressively dirtier as the trip went on.

San Jose is a crazy, busy kind of place. There are very few lights at intersections. In the style of many busy metropolises world-wide, there are lots of motorcycles and mopeds zipping in and out of the flow of traffic. Rob takes over driving not 15 minutes after we leave the rental place as it’s obvious he’s better suited to the activity. I drove in the Boston area off and on during the few years I lived down that way, but the aggressiveness and the defensive skills needed never really entered my blood stream they way they did Robert’s.

The drive to Arenal Paraiso, the resort we are staying at outside of the Arenal Volcano is predicted at three hours. Not 20 minutes after we start our trip, the skies open up and we’re bathed in torrential sheets of rain. We are exceedingly glad to have a GPS for our trip as just like the guides say, the roads are confusing and poorly marked. The drivers here are daredevils, reckless in many cases, and will ride in two lanes, pass without notice, and pay little heed to speed limits. However, the fines for speeding here are a $600 ticket, so we are conservative. We already start to notice the steep drop offs of 2-5 ft present at the shoulder of most roads here. My guess is the usual suspect responsible for no shoulders on the roads is the massive amounts of rain the country receives during the rainy season.

After passing through some hubs of suburban activity, we reach the mountain route that will lead us to La Fortuna, the little town nestled beneath the volcano. The roads are impossibly sharp and winding here. The night is dark, the rain is intense, much of the drive brings us through patches of thick haze and fog. Combined with the many people – often wearing black – haphazardly walking home on the side of the road, the steep drop-offs, and the animals we occasionally see darting across, the drive is one of the most intense I’ve ever experienced, requiring us both to stare ahead of us with rapt attention and constant communication. There are also a multitude of bridges and our GPS chimes each time with a warning indicating “dangerous bridge ahead”. We soon figure out the yielding system as only one car can generally drive across at a time. There is one particular bridge that is bigger than the rest and although I can’t see the surrounding landscape, I get the sense of the cavernous space beneath us and in some sense am slightly grateful to be traversing at night when I can’t fully appreciate the looming space underneath.

We reach Arenal Paraiso only 10 – 20 minutes later than expected even with the intensity of the travel. We are ushered to a lovely little suite where we begin to relax. There are two rocking chairs on a little back veranda that we sit to take in our first interaction with the volcano. We hear the whirs, clicks, and biological thrum of the area and see a few haphazard lightning bugs blink off and on in the corner. It’s decidedly funny to experience this at night and feels oddly surreal, like we’ve traveled to a glorified version of the rainforest cafe, because we can only hear a soundscape, taste a foreign air. We’ve yet to actually lay eyes on most of what waits for us.