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…

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Day 5 – With My Head In The Clouds

Monteverde Cloud Forest (http://www.monteverdecostarica.com/)

Monteverde is an interesting place but in some ways represents the lull in our trip. The region is home to a rare type of ecohabitat called cloud forest which is characterized by low-level clouds that sit at canopy-level among the trees. The constant presence of the clouds means the forest is always wet and mossy. The composition of flora and fauna tends to be very different here than elsewhere in Costa Rica. However, wildlife is harder to see here, thus a tricky endeavor during shorter visits like our own. Most people are better served here by an interest in plants. There are hundreds of epiphytic species that use stronger, hardier plants for structural support, but typically derive nutrients from the air that surrounds them (“All I need is the air that I breath…”) and from detritus that accumulates around their roots.

Leaf edges serrated by a bat (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are two reserves to visit, the Monteverde Reserve, and the Santa Elana Reserve, named for a nearby town. We choose to visit the Santa Elena Reserve as it’s close to some other interesting local attractions, including the Selvatura Park.

Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011

As we are about to start out for a relaxed hike, we meet a group of graduate students including a PhD canidate from UConn researching ants, who tell us they are headed to biological research station somewhere nearby.  After searching online, their description most likely fits the Monteverde Conservation League, a non-profit dedicated to research, outreach, education, and the preservation of the cloud forest. This work seems even more timely as cloud forests are extremely sensitive to the effects of climate change. Though they have been resilient in response to historical temperature fluctuations, too much warming could affect the characteristic cloud cover here and completely change the hydrological regime.

We start our walk through the forest and start to appreciate most of the diversity we see on a more micro scale. Tiny dew drops that refract the incoming bursts of light. The forest is abuzz with texture, smells, and sounds. Just like every location we will visit during our stay, we hear the constant throb of cicadas in the background, a sort of gregorian chant celebrating the sheer grandiosity of the life force surrounding us.

Small epiphytic plants are abundant in the Costa Rican cloud forest (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Cloud Forest epiphyte (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Monteverde Cloud Forest Canopy - light from above (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

There are a few errant clips of bird song and we do manage to spy a collared red start hopping along the path – one of the happiest looking birds I’ve ever seen. Though we’re never lucky enough to see one, Monteverde is also home to a renowned bird called the quetzal.

The last thing we do before heading back to the lodge, is visit the Insect exhibit, “Jewels of the Rainforest.” in Selvatura Park. Both my Lonely Planet and Moon guide list this as a not-to-miss stop. The collection, one of the largest in the world, is the culmination of years of collecting by entomologist Richard Whitten , who moved with his wife to Costa Rica to begin collecting and studying metallic beetles, most likely in the Buprestidae family. The exhibit covers all manner of creepy crawlies however, with wall after wall of them encased in glass.

The highlight of the collection are most certainly the iridescent butterflies positioned ornately in spirals and geometric arrangements, or against other beautiful objects, like peacock feathers, that serve to enhance their natural elegance (Roger Whitten’s wife was said to be responsible). The morpho, a very large shimmering blue butterfly we’ve already seen around the country, is featured heavily in the exhibit. I also love the many delicate examples of glass butterflies, with their barely-there transparent wings on display.

Morpho butterfly - Jewels of the Rainforest Exhibit (http://www.flickr.com/photos/12928926@N06/sets/72157621807255630/)

There are many other examples of insects with less friendly personas. Viewing bird tarantulas, whip spiders, millipedes, parasitic wasps, and Giant Goliath beetles make my skin alight with a crawling sensation. There are walls dedicated to insects vectoring disease in Costa Rica and another showing the great variety of species in Monteverde alone including several ridiculously large spiders and more bullet ants. Though we saw sparse wildlife on our earlier hike, it’s a little unsettling to know what’s going on off trail.

We stop for a little while in the town of Santa Elana and have lunch at a local soda called the traveling man. Rice with pollo (chicken), crispy yucca, plantains, and some variety of local orange soda. The town is small, essentially a triangle of streets loaded with tourist traps, and a few interesting places we make a mental note to visit the next day. We work our way back to the Cloud Forest Lodge for a quiet night. There is yet another cat who seems to target the foreigners for love and affection. He (we’ll just call him “Alejandro”) makes no qualms about following us into our room, curiously checking out our luggage, and making sure to lounge on every inch of free shelf space we have to put our things.  We will later hear him pulling the same con on new arrivals, and meowing with loud intent the next morning at the door of everyone who just might listen…

Day 4 – Transition is Key (Or “The Way to Monteverde”)

Saying goodbye to Arenal (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

As we are checking out of the hotel, we chat with Victor at the front desk. He is one of the staff members here who has been impossibly cordial and very welcoming. He has explained to us that Costa Rica is the perfect place to learn Spanish as they are essentially unaccented, sort of like what we might think of as Standard American English, or broadcaster speak (I tread lightly here). He also suggests a stop in a little town called Tilarán on our way to Monteverde where we can ride horses and take in more cataratas (waterfalls). Apparently, swimming in waterfalls is just something you do here. I’d like to think it’s as commonplace as eating breakfast.

We go into town to try and acquire a SIM card for our cell phones from ICE (pronounced ee-say), the phone service company that appears to service the majority of the country. The attempt proves futile, as the line of 6 0r 7 people doesn’t visibly budge for at least an hour. We will ultimately choose to embrace “Pura Vida!” and decide we can make it on our own, technology be damned (this luckily pans out for us, we have access to the hotel phone for cheap, in-country calls). But while Rob is waiting, I wander around the lobby of the little strip mall which has the bizarre mixture of cheap goods and a gym on the upper floor. This boy at a pet supply kiosk in front watches me pet a bunny sitting in a little cage. He suddenly pulls out a plastic bag of the weirdest looking items I’ve ever seen and seems to be trying to communicate with me while emphatically pointing to the bag. Luckily, a man standing nearby steps in to translate and explains that the strange little fuzzy wares the boy is pointing at are in fact, a type of fruit. Ever the adventurer, I get Rob to haggle for some, all the while mentally recounting warnings I’ve read about eating fruit in foreign countries. I later find out they are called mamón chino, a local name for fruit from the Rambutan tree. They are typically red, but we were sold a smaller, yellow wild variety. To eat one, you need to break open the shell with your teeth and suck on the fruit inside (they have large pits) which tastes like a tangy grape. They are fantastic.

We drive away from Arenal with fondness and apprehension soaking into our brains. The wildness of the rainforest quickly turns into peak after peak and valley after valley. The green of the vegetation here is vibrant, brighter than anything I recall seeing before. the drop-offs here are steeper than anywhere else we’ve visited – with hundreds of feet of open air enveloping either side of the car at times while we work our way down mountain roads. I soon learn that the signs reading “peligroso” are warning us about road hazards, and the admonishment of “despacio” is requesting us to proceed with caution. We pass through several small Costa Rican towns with churches and schools, and the sounds of everyday rural life. We hear music pouring out of one of the schools carrying a chorus of voices with it. I manage to wrangle Rob’s camera (a beautiful digital SLR) for a few minutes and indiscriminately take pictures out of the car window, with the false hope of producing nat geo quality masterpieces. While this doesn’t happen, there are a few interesting pictures of the clay hill sides and buildings.

Clay hillsides, drive to Monteverde (copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Guanacaste Province - roadside view (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

We find signs for Viento Fresco once we reach Tilarán. We pull in and start chatting with a man named Orlando who will soon become our tour guide. We choose to hike down to the water falls and take horses back up. Orlando is quick to smile and has a great sense of humor. As they drive us down to the start of the path in a battered truck, a skinny golden dog starts chasing after, keeping pace with us. Cue the introduction of Paloma, who may in fact be our real guide for the next few hours. A battered old dog, with clouded vision in one eye, the battle scars of past bot-fly bites, Paloma is along with us along literally every step of our way, scrambling over flowing water and barking at the capuchin monkeys with great fervor.

Our trusty steed, Paloma (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Capuchin or "White-faced" monkey (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

A toucanet, the smaller emerald hued cousin of the toucan, hops overhead while we start down towards the cataratas.  Orlando points out subtle signs of living things as we walk – the bright spots of the tiger beetle, the small earthen holes of mot mot nests, a few errant porcupine quills in the earth, trails of leaf cutter ants crossing overhead vines. At one point, he shows me a miniscule, unassuming plant with small compound leaves growing along the path. He lightly brushes the tips and they instantly fold into themselves which I am delighted by. I will end up seeing the same plant, Mimosa pudica, or “the sensitive plant,” several places again before journey’s end.

Costa Rica Tiger Beetle (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

 We travel to all the waterfalls in succession and then slip in to swim for the second time on our vacation. I have heard and read complaints about the water being cold here but for someone who grew up swimming in the Gulf of Maine, it is warm enough.

Rainbow Falls - Viento Fresco Cataratas (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

Viento Fresco Waterfalls (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

The skies have been darkening overhead and when we start to change into dry clothes,  it starts raining torentially. Orlando decides the ferocity of the lightning that has hitchhiked in with the rain warrants waiting a few minutes before starting back.  With the horses tied up restlessly nearby, we seek cover in a little corregated tin-roofed shelter at the top of the hill. As the tormenta (spanish for storm) quietly rages on, I sit back and listen to Robert and Orlando practice the art of communicating with language barriers – hand gestures, and quizzical looks abound. We do find out however more about Orlando’s family – the fact that the waterfalls sit on his family’s farm land (across the valley, we can see the sheets of plastic tarping overlaying the rows and rows of tomatoes to protect them from the massive amount of moisture during the wet season), and that his wife is a Nicaraugan immigrant who has been living in Costa Rica since the age of four or five when her father brought her here. After a level of comfort sets in, he also sheepishly admits Victor, the desk clerk at Arenal Parasio who suggested we visit this series of cataratas, is, in fact, his son. He seems wary of casually divulging the fact lest tourists suspect the recommendation is a nepotistic one.  We find it amusing, and ardently assure him we are having the time of our life.

Robert and I on Tico ponies (Copyright: Robert Schuman 2011)

The lightning takes some time to die down and almost 45 minutes pass before we are able to mount the little Tico ponies waiting for us (“Tico” is a casual term describing Costa Rican natives – people and horse alike). Orlando gives me the best raincoat and we set off back towards the stables and his family’s restaurant. We know nothing about riding, so Orlando follows carefully behind and keeps the ponies treading ahead with a practiced hand. The rain is still coming down, and I can barely see ahead of me. When the ponies sense they’re getting closer to home, they quicken the pace until we are trotting (or galloping? ), and my teeth feel like their being shaken out of my head. I have a long way to go before I become an adept horsewoman.

As Rob and I are changing into dry clothes, we hear Orlando and his wife having a slightly heated argument, a reminder that family life is about the same everywhere. However, things seem to abate quickly  and we sit with beer and hot chocolate to have a final chat with Orlando and sign the guest book after browsing entries from all over the world.

We head out on pitch black, unpaved roads towards Monteverde. The roads have been kept in rough shape intentionally as a supposed deterrent of excessive tourism and development. We arrive at our next stop, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge where we will stay for two nights, and quickly settle in.

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 2 – It’s a Beautiful Day

I slip out of bed into the view of daylight. It’s the first time I will get to set eyes on the landscape and I am thrilled. The sliding glass door in our room faces the volcano and it’s the first thing I see, impossible to miss (… when graced with clear skies. However, the region often experiences some low hanging clouds that can oddly enough make you question if you saw something there in the first place). The volcano has been dormant for almost a year, but there is a sense of unsteadiness laced about it.

Arenal Volcano (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Even though exhausted, we don’t sleep in very much, which essentially sets a precedent for the entire trip. Breakfast at the hotel is exciting. The proper staples of a Costa Rican breakfast often include rice and beans (gallo pinto), eggs, and a slice of farm-made cheese, all of which prove to be my favorite choices. (Signs all over the country tout this as a “Tipico” breakfast) There is plenty of fruit, and sweet plantains which are also popular in just about every location we visit.

We decide to strike it on our own in the morning and head towards the La Fortuna Catarata – a local waterfall. We snake back down towards town and take a right past a local grocery and young school-aged children playing soccer, until we reach dirt and rock roads. Rob is thrilled to see what our little underpowered car will do with the new terrain and we slip and slide our way to the waterfall’s entry point. After paying the entrance fee, we stand at a look-out point where we see an aerial view of the fall before starting down to the waters below.

Arial view of the La Fortuna Catarata (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

There are steps made from grids of concrete, and concrete posts with lengths of chain running between them. There is too much to take in, and everything has the green glow of life around it. We already start to see species of Ficus trees which are common throughout Costa Rica. Some species are sinister and will strangle its host tree, sometimes to death, all the while encasing its victims body with its own tangle of growth. In same cases, you can see the hollow core where the original tree once was.

Ficus Tree - La Fortuna Waterfall (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

We finally reach the base of the waterfall, and everything is hued in a breathtaking blue green. There are little pockets of flowing water downstream, where fish weave in and out of our legs. We make our way to the central pool and slip in as we’ve just watched other visitors do. The water churns with the massive energy – we can only get 20 feet or so from our starting point before we are unable to fight the energy of the water any further. A quick and careful trek (the rocks are slippery with scums of algea) behind the waterfall reveals a mural of hanging vines and trickles of moisture. The pressure is noticeably lower behind the fall and you can sometimes feel your eardrums pop.

Base of La Fortuna Catarata (Photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Behind the La Fortuna waterfall (photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Looking up from the waterfall (Photo credit: Carrie Schuman)

Later in the afternoon, I convince Robert to drive us towards Arenal National Park and ask if he’d be willing to scope out Skytrek – a tour featuring a sky tram and a series of zip lines that criss-cross above forest floor. Zip lines are a typical part of canopy tours and other tourist traps around the area. We find out there are no less than 250 versions of this in the region. However, thanks to Moon’s guide to Costa Rica, my interest has been piqued in this particular experience, as they proclaim these are the tallest in the country.

I am terrified of heights and one experience comes back to me – once, I had a panic attack as a teenager when faced with a 60 foot high platform/zip line, an impossibly tame version of what we are now contemplating. The highest of these platforms is 200 m, or more than 600 ft above the forest floor.  However, I was instructed by multiple  friends before leaving on this momentous trip not to say no, so I agree with nervous apprehension.

In the sky tram, which will first bring us to the top before starting the zip lines, we chat with Mariano and Tatiana from Brazil and talk politics and culture. The apex yields a stunning view of the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal which sits at it’s western side. We run through two practice zip lines with our overly-personable instructors, Jose and Carlos, who teach us to cross our ankles and bend our knees towards our chest while straightening our elbows, and what to do should the pully stop on the cable hundreds of feet above the bottom. The way they show us to flip around and pull ourselves along the remaining length of steel rope hand-over-hand, makes me think of scenes from “Cliffhanger”. The thought of it makes me a little woozy, maybe not as much from the heights as from recalling Stallone’s stunning cinematic performance.

After two practice lines, I am somehow chosen to go first. Momentum launches me, screaming,  off the first platform. (I will be made fun of mercilessly as we traverse the rest of the zip lines. I do not entirely commit to the screaming thing and they come in these bizarre fits and bursts, that apparently left everyone else doubled over in laughter while they were waiting for their turn). I do manage to cowboy-up and turn my head side-to-side to take in the view and appreciate how high up I really am. Carlos slows down the pulley at the end of the line and I almost fall over from the adrenaline coursing through my system, making my legs wobbly and weak. There are a total of five of us completing the pathway of zip lines down to the bottom including a  man with a thick Georgia Southern accent who raises Chickens for Tyson and grows peanuts for distribution to several candy companies. We are not action-movie material.  Rob and I learn a couple new phrases: “muy divertido” – very fun, and the Costa Rican mantra, “Pura vida”, or pure life. This phrase opens doors for the Costa Rican traveler, their version of “it’s all good!”

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.