This journal harks from The Costa Rica Virgin Trip of 1999, when I still traveled solo-enough to have time to write. Accompanying photos are from 1998 – Present — you’ll be able to tell the difference :)
Tuesday, November 24
4:50 AM: Up and moving. A good start. I’ve planned the whole trip, made all the arrangements, set the schedules and assured everyone that all is under control. Ha! I don’t even speak Spanish! At Noon we’re finally on our way.
As we try to descend for landing, we pass through billowing tower stacks of snow white clouds, and each entry of metal plane into nebulous whitestuff is marked with a definite SWOOSH as we invade the blinding accumulation of vapor. At one point we fly straight for a giant tower of dark gray, and after a moment’s hesitation, I savor the swoop. After all, it’s hardly an everyday experience.
We’re taken by bus from the plane to a small building labeled Delta, where we breeze through Immigration and Customs to be met by a confusing bevy of men offering various services. One grabs my pack to carry it for me, and another stops us to check my baggage claim ticket (a first). I give the man $1 and find Wendy already in conversation with another stranger about the car that is to pick us up. He asks for a phone number and Wendy hands over my itinerary, whereupon the man grabs a phone and starts punching in numbers with abandon. We spot a man standing patiently outside with my name on a sign. I knew he’d be there, requiring only the willingness to step back a moment and watch and wait. Wendy tipped the number puncher.
Our driver is Tico, named Ricardo, with long black hair that makes waves and swirls down his back. He is quiet and nice, a welcome break from the noisy chaos of the airport, with a happy smile. He reminds me of Eugene on “Northern Exposure.” As he jolts and sways along the pot-holed IntraAmerican Highway, he periodically pauses to show us the roadside sights: a one-lane steel bridge for bungee jumping, tropical gardens with colors arranged to depict words and emblems, fields of sugarcane with giant tassels blowing in the breeze, a rainbow, roadside sellers of citrus and what look to be Moravian sugarcakes, coffee pickers carrying large brown baskets. Sometimes he just stops, and my heart wants to beat faster at what might happen next, but then he begins carefully picking his way around, or into and then back out of, a cavernous hole in the road.
After two hours of this, first on the gotta-drive-it-to-believe-it IntraAmerican and then on a much better road, Ricardo takes the high fork of what is now a rutted dirt road strewn with large river stones and big petrified mud clods. It’s 5:15 and the sun is setting over the gulf of Nicoya, and we get magnificent glimpses between stands of forest, hills, palms, and the occasional house as we climb and climb up the winding ledge of a road through and into something like nowhere. We pass the occasional car, scattered people by the road, a family walking, and I keep wondering, “Why here?” Why here when there are places to be and this is certainly not a place, but just the winding and the dirt and the rocks, on and on turn after turn still climbing and around each bend another bend ahead just the same into what must be eternity. Where have they come from and where are they going when there is simply nowhere to be?
Because we are so close to the equator, there are twelve hours of light and twelve hours of dark in each day. Sunrise will be early, and sunset arrives at such a surprising hour that it’s like someone jumping out to yell, “BOO!” each afternoon. We’ll have to be careful of where we find ourselves at 5:00 each day. It’s frustrating to arrive in a place after dark, and I strain to see as much as I can through the twilight.
I remember one sight — a dark wooden shack on the left side of the road with a front porch and a railing and along the railing fat dark chickens, one after another side by side just sitting. Then on we go into the black evening until ahead there appears a string of lamps on light poles dug into the hillsides falling off to our left. And after a bit, a couple of lighted buildings, a “Welcome to Monteverde” sign, and then we are in the village of Santa Elena. Nothing and nothing and nothing in the climbing and suddenly a village like a mirage or some strange joke.
I’ve read that there’s a bank and post office here, but we see only several sodas (small eating places), some tour offices, jeeps, and lots of twenty-year-olds milling about in the one street. Ricardo parks and takes us into the Canopy Tour office, where he and several bright-eyed competent young men trade turns in Spanish on the phone, give us relayed instructions, take money, and hand over vouchers. I’ve arranged most of the first half of our trip through Rick of The Canopy Tour. We pay him for everything and have little cash to worry about. Easy.
We grab a veggie pizza and order arroz con polo (chicken with rice), 3 waters and 3 cokes from the adjacent soda, which is filled with students and lots of talk, and use the restroom with no toilet seat, while a taxi is called. Ricardo needs 4-wheel drive to finish the trip to our room, and he has the four-hour tortuous drive back to San Jose in the dark, so he pays for the taxi and departs. I tip him $20, which seems hardly enough at this late hour, even though we have paid $45 each for the ride. Our taxi arrives, which is just a jeep, and we begin a one-mile ascent that is, incredibly, ten times worse than the one we’ve just completed. At one point the jeep jams itself into the muck, but we roll back down the hill and make it through on the second try.
We’re staying at the Cloud Forest Lodge, which has just reopened, and Miguel comes out to meet us and asks if we’d like some dinner — the kitchen has stayed open for us just in case. He walks with us up the hill in the dark to our room. It’s about 8:00. The cabins are pretty basic from the outside — green paneling and a cement porch, but the inside is rustically paneled with a vaulted ceiling, lots of windows, and a big bathroom. We heap on the big bed and wolf down dinner, which is probably the best vegetarian pizza I’ve ever had, shower, and situate ourselves for tomorrow. It’s cool and breezy, and by the time we’re drifting off to sleep (I have my own twin bed in the corner), even though we’ve closed the ventilation windows to keep out the toe-sucking bats we read about, the wind is howling like crazy through every crack and crevice in the little wooden cabin. All night long, it never stops, waking us all repeatedly with mourning or warnings or celebration, who’s to say? Wild and getting wilder.
Wednesday, November 25
6:00 doesn’t come quite so early when the sky is day-bright at 5:30. Miguel opens the kitchen at 6:30 for us since we have a tour at 7:30 (though he says it will be closer to 8:00 when the guides get here, and he turns out to be right). We dine on the porch overlooking the gardens and hillsides dotted with horses and white flabby-necked cows with a perfectly framed view right down to the Gulf of Nicoya. Miguel gives us a choice of American or “Typical” breakfast, and we all choose “Typical” — Costa Rican coffee or tea, scrambled eggs, Gallo Pinto (beans and rice) with lizano sauce, fresh papaya (a deep, deep coral), corn tortilla that actually tastes like corn, and which is filled with thick cream and rolled up to eat, toasted slices of homemade bread, and a delicious chutney made of papaya. Excellent. All through the meal, Miguel keeps coming back to the table to point out and identify birds, show us what to look for in his field guide, giving tips, and even bringing us guava from the tree outside the window so we can taste what the birds are eating. (Though we’ve been warned not to eat local unwashed fruit, he’s so nice that we feel obligated to bite in.) There’s a beautiful motmot, bright green with a looooooonnnnggggg tail and crown of iridescent royal blue and turquoise that spends most of the morning on one of the several guava trees surrounding the restaurant, and his picture adorns the hotel website. Miguel takes very good care of us, obviously proud of his country and relishing the opportunity to show us all that he can, even at one point calling us out to see a big Costa Rican centipede, which has unfortunately vanished.
A bit before 8:00, an open army transport jeep rattles up the road with our four guides and the other nine Canopy Tour participants. The guides are fun guys with a fun job, but very careful and alert, which is comforting. They strap us into rock climbing gear, which circles our waists and upper thighs and will allow us to be carried by cables in a seated position. From all these straps hang lots of very large dangling carabiners, a huge pulley, and rope. We start up the trail, which ascends just behind our cabins, stopping several times for naturalist lessons on trees, barks, leaves, epiphytes, and poisonous tomatoes. When we reach the gargantuan vertical cave created by the strangler fig tree, the roped foot and handhold ascension system in its interior is quite impressive. The handholds are triangles (like the percussion instrument) mounted firmly by rope, and the steps are woven and knotted rope strung in cubbyholes here and there, just wide enough to step on. The climb up inside the tree is difficult enough to be fun and adventurous but easily manageable. My main problem was that my jeans constricted my legs reaching for the high steps.
So we get to the top, one by one, and emerge onto a “platform,” which is actually just a series of wooden sheets about two feet wide attached to a support system of pipes. It seems shockingly precarious in theory, but because the jungle is so leafy, there’s much less visually-induced fear involved in the height. You know you’re high, but you can’t see the ground, and the leafy boughs everywhere seem happy and comforting, rather like an environmental swig of whiskey.
One foot on the platform, and we’re immediately attached by carabiner to a safety rope, and at no time are we detached from this safety rope until we’re hooked onto something else. Problem is, the “something else” is usually a lot more scary. The idea is that we hook our roped-on pulleys onto a zipline cable stretching from this massive tree to another massive tree some distance across the forest. Now this isn’t something I would normally consider under any circumstances, but one of the transformational joys of travel is that you get to be a different person while you’re away. It’s like, “Hey, why not try on Personality M for today, see if I like it?” And so I do.
Once attached, we’re to place one hand (our strongest) (clad in heavy-duty workman’s gloves) over our heads and rest it LIGHTLY on the cable (have you ever tried to grasp something lightly when you’re scared to death?) BEHIND the pulley. With the other hand, we hold onto the webbed belt attaching the pulley to the half body harness cradling us like a chair, and crouch into a seated position. When the guide beside us yells, “Whoops!” and the guide on the other tree “Whoops” back, we jump off. HA!!!
I watch several people do this before me, and they swing along with ease. I’m thinking maybe it isn’t as scary as it looks. But when I step up to the line and David tells me calmly what to do and I feel how slippery the pulley is against the cable and fully realize that I’m about to freefall, I balk. I look into his eyes with heartfelt good sense and say, “I’m not sure I can do this,” and he looks back at me with a look that means, “Jump, lady.” So I push my consciousness to that “other place” and jump, hating it, facing the inevitable, leaping unwillingly to whatever destiny awaits me —- zzziiiiipppp!!!!! And a few seconds into the slide I loosen and relax a bit, and begin to realize that it feels really good, and then I take a peek around at the incredible forest all around me in a blur and I’m swinging like Jane through the trees and loving it.
The worst part is the jump, but even this gets easier by the third time or so. Once you jump, the webbing carries you quite comfortably like a little golden gondola cruising high above the Alps. But I can’t say ANYone saw wildlife this way — canopy level or not. Maybe the guides . . . . Or maybe old jumpers who’re calm enough to concentrate on something more than a thumping heart between swings.
Just before my jump, waiting on the platform, someone wondered aloud what happens if you don’t make it all the way across. Micheal joked that the next person in line just gives you a bump to the finish! Well . . . . So I’m zipping along and Tree Guide #2 yells, “Brake!” when I’m ten feet away and speeding like crazy into a tree that could eat a Suburban. This is when you’re supposed to use your strong hand on the cable (BEHIND the pulley) to grab the line, creating friction and easing the transition from air to tree. Well, with the residual adrenaline from my residual fear, I grabbed good and hard and the guide, who has to reach way out and grab you by the webbing to pull you onto the platform, couldn’t grab me. So what the hell, I just started sliding backwards, suspended and now motionless far above the forest floor. Tree Guy #2 calmly says, “Okay. Now turn around backwards, put your arms up to the cable (NOW I get to hold on with both hands!), and pull yourself overhand back up to this tree.” Whoa! (He has greatly misplaced confidence in my muscle power.) So in the end, I got extra time on the zipline AND demonstrated for all just what to do in cases like this, and let me assure you no one else made the same mistake.
This time he grabs me just as my overhand is getting ragged, and I’m safe on another platform. We do this three times — the other two times, I make it all the way. One platform has a rope swing you can attach yourself to and play like a monkey, but I don’t try this. Wendy does, batting to and fro in and out of the canopy leaves in various inverted monkey positions. The guides show us up by zipping back and forth while lying down or hanging upside down. No wonder David thinks I’m a chicken.
At the last platform we have a rappel — a long one — to the forest floor. Because there’s really nothing to bounce off of, it’s more like sliding down a 200 foot rope. We use a figure 8 pulley which will hold 90% of our weight. We have to support the other 10%. Left hand on the pulley, strong right hand gripping the cable (?) rope (?) (the memory blurs) with a straight arm at our side. Wendy takes a long, slow, scenic ride down, and the friction has burned her glove hot as fire by the time she lands. My brake arm is tired and I go down much faster than I wanted to — but I did it! I did it!
After hiking back to the hotel, we try to journal a bit on the restaurant porch, watching the green parrots fly here and there, and the motmot visits again. Miguel brings us cokes, and then sends Wendy and me off with a map of the Avocado Trail in search of a quetzal (they love the tiny wild avocados, which grow very high up in the trees). He often sees one there, but we don’t, though we have a lovely walk and do manage to locate the wild avocado trees, which bear acorn-sized avocados on bright red cherry stems. Once I find a whole one on the ground, we recognize the hundreds of discarded stems all along the trail. So we know they’re up there, but our city eyes don’t yet see. The trail however, is beautiful, with leafy paths and so much green. Every tree trunk seems to sprout at least ten types of leaf if you follow it from ground to sky — giant epiphytes of every description. (An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant — like a bromeliad in the branch fork of a wild avocado tree.) The wind howls through the forest canopy and I feel lost in another world until we reluctantly walk back to prepare for our next adventure: a trek by horseback down the mountain.
A second canopy tour is finishing at noon, so we hop a ride into town on the army jeep. Whoa! Now I know what it really means to hit a bump, because this thing doesn’t pussyfoot around potholes — it just slams onward, tossing luggage, carabiners and passengers alike willy nilly this way and that into the forest. I REALLY wanted to ride in it, and I’m REALLY glad when it stops. We’ve been banged about quite heartily, and our bones and organs are mildly displaced even before we get to the horses.
The horse people meet us at the Canopy Tour office in town, throw our backpacks into a jeep, and turn us over to yet another driver, who’ll barrel us down more winding, rocky dirt roads to the stable. Surprisingly, there are 15 of us taking the ride, plus two tico cowboys. One girl wears a Murrells Inlet, South Carolina tee shirt around her waist, and at the beginning of the trip, I’m anxious to talk to her about this (but I soon lose all interest). The owner is a nice and pleasant-looking man, clearly American, who tells us this trail is an 85 year old transport route from the mountain to Arenal Lake. We’ll be on horseback for 3-1/2 hours, which sounds like great fun at this point. Heavy, yellow hooded slickers are strapped behind the saddle of each horse, but he doesn’t think it will rain. Our gear will arrive by car and meet us at the Arenal Dam after we and the horses have descended 4,000 feet!!!!! 4,000!!!!!
So they help me onto this horse, a dapply sort that looks a lot like a mule, but they call it a horse, and who am I to argue? We get very brief instructions, leading one (or at least me) to believe that the trip is pretty much of a no-brainer. I fall for it, but only briefly. I haven’t thought too much yet about the 4,000 feet, but this will mean a very long, very steep, very muddy downhill ride. But hey! We’re in the clouds! This is my cloud forest, and it’s too cool for words. As we begin to descend, we pass through the famous Children’s Rainforest, and it is simply magnificent — vista after vista of indescribable beauty (and not a man-made structure visible for the whole trip). Unfortunately, admiring our surroundings is a risk that must be carefully calculated, as the horse seems to know just when I’m paying the least attention and so chooses that time to break out at a brisk clip. We have Peruvian saddles — no horn or hold, but there’s a little piece of rope through the front if you need a handhold, as well as a piece of rope at the rear of the saddle to hang onto when going downhill so you don’t slide off over the horse’s head. The reins are of rough, thick rope, and the horse wears no bit. At first this is really fun and I feel quite the natural. Then we hit the muddy inclines — often 3 feet of gooey muck that makes loud sucking noises when the horses try to remove their feet. They sink and sink, schlopping along as best they can, though clearly not eager, and then get super frisky along the dry stretches. It was quite taxing, physically and mentally, and the owners clearly presumed that the general population possesses much more innate saddle skill than is the case. But the only one to take a spill was one of the cowboy guides, who tumbled down the hill after his horse took a fall galloping down a mountainside meadow, followed by a cartwheeling pineapple that tumbled from his sack. No injuries. The meadow was beautiful — filled with loose white cattle and horses, and we rode right through them as though we belonged. After the first hour, a gentle, pleasant rain began, and then the deluge. The parkas were a help, but my glasses were
useless, and the pouring rain steadily ran from my poncho hood into my right eye, so that I had to squinch every few seconds to empty it out for any kind of vision at all. QUITE an experience. After about two hours of vivid sensory assault, we came to a rushing stream strewn with boulders and whitewater — and proceed to ford it! The horses don’t seem to mind, but I’m thinking — NO WAY! The water is about belly level on the horses, but across we go. At the far bank, under giant trees providing some cover from the rain, we dismounted to rest the horses. One of the cowboys helped me off, and my knees screamed in such excruciating pain that I couldn’t take a step for a full 5-7 minutes. When I pulled myself together, I looked over and saw someone eating watermelon, which seemed odd. Then beyond on a rock in the stream stood the two cowboys with machetes hacking up watermelon and pineapple. So there we all stood, 15 exhausted, wet rat riders in yellow ponchos who can’t bend their legs and a circle of steaming horses, all lapping up exotic fruits in the pouring rain. It was a definite highlight, and I only wish I had had the energy to hoist the camera.
I thought I’d never be able to get back on that horse, but in 30 minutes even I was okay again, and off we went, somewhat refreshed, if wiser and more wary. We rode for another hour, still downhill but less steeply now, fording the stream three more times and following it all the way. As a special treat, there were pretty yellow, green and black toucans in the trees watching us. Finally, we hit the bottom at the tiny village of El Castillo, amid cheers from older, less adventurous folk who had just alighted from a tour bus. We hopped off gratefully, begged the forgiveness of our long-suffering steeds and watched them amble riderless down the road toward whatever they call home.
Next we were herded, by this time deaf, mute, barely alive and too beat to question anything, down a path to the lake toward our boat, which you would have to see to believe.
It is a very, VERY low sitting wooden craft, with a top and plastic seats, enough, but all of which are of course soaked and puddled from the rain. I would not have bet you that it could float, and if I had known the length of our trip, I’d have been really worried. It’s a LONG way across that lake, but the good news is that it’s absolutely breathtaking. Lots of crenellations in the shoreline, with soaring green hills rising from the shores — like something you might see along the coast of Ireland or on Lake Windemere This green and blue heaven was too our left, and to our right — the black behemoth — Volcan Arenal. Parts of the slopes were green, but huge swaths were of blackened lava from the recent flows. Huge, huge, huge, and quite foreboding. She was a great sight, even with her peak shrouded in thick, gray clouds.
This didn’t seem to be a good omen for our anticipated lava-viewing, but the sight of her flanks was impressive enough. At the dam, the driver RAMMED the boat into tall reeds on the bank, and we jumped out into them and hiked up to waiting cars and went our separate ways. Micheal, Wendy and I were met by a driver from our next hotel, Arenal Lodge, a short but very vertical drive from the dam. We had a chalet, which required another steep walk. It wasn’t exactly HG, but it was fronted by a terrace and a long glass wall facing the volcano. We showered and changed, grabbed a sandwich for dinner in the restaurant (a good bit nicer than the room), and hopped a ride to Tabacon Hot Springs for an evening soak. The dark drive down the foresty road was pleasant and evocative, and our driver pulled over at one point to show us a sudden lava flow coming down the sides of the volcano. We were so excited!
Tabacon is kind of a zoo. You have to pay $15.00 to get in, and they give you a plastic wristband like at the hospital, only bright red. There’s a restaurant and gift shop, showers and lockers. The big pool in the center has a swim-up bar, naturally filled with lots of girls in bikinis and guys drinking. I hated it. We walked around and saw the famous sitting ledge under the steamy waterfall where everyone has their picture taken. Past the big pool, interspersed with tropical gardens, there were three large pools — totally empty — and several individual pools, each with its own waterfall for a private massage. We spent an hour all alone in a round toasty hot pool with sides shaped into recliners for our ragged little bodies, and took turns beneath a blessedly sadistic waterfall — the perfect end to a grueling day. As we lay settled back in the pool of hot sulfur water heated by the volcano, there was a serenely clear half moon above us, brilliant stars, wisps of clouds, and a picture-perfect outline of the black Arenal against the blue night sky. And for the entire hour, just for us, alone there in our cozy, private, bubbling spring, she spat and drooled and gushed and bubbled brilliant orange-red lava from both her top and a slightly lower vent on her left flank. One moment, blackness — and suddenly a dot of fire and then the oozing until the fire cooled and went dark again. Again and again for us in the night.
After an hour we moved from the pool to the actual river spring amid the gardens with falls and rapids and the hottest water. Micheal found a private, secret, furious, hot grotto, loving it so much he barely made it out in time to catch the last transport. It was heaven.
Back at the chalet, all snuggled into our beds in front of the window walls, Arenal continued to erupt ALL NIGHT LONG as we lay in bed reluctant to close our eyes and miss this spectacular show. When sleep came, every now and then we’d be awakened by the foreign sound of deep, thundering booms. I smiled all night.
Thursday, November 26 (Thanksgiving!)
Slept great. Woke at 5:30 to dense fog coming almost to our window. No view, no sign, no hint of any volcano anywhere, despite her hugeness! A real metaphor for life and all we miss on a daily basis. I’m slow to leave the comfort and warmth of my bed, but finally drag up and dress myself (but just a bit) for breakfast. I’ve already decided to skip the planned lava hike in favor of some regrouping time.
Breakfast is buffet-style in the pretty restaurant. Beyond the glass walls are lots of small ponds encircled by flowering plants creating a Garden of Eden foreground for the volcano, still invisible. There are two large bird feeders just outside the glass — iron bars with large hooks on which dangle big chunks of papaya. The birds come and feed constantly, a spectacular show of exotic colors and feathery shapes, none of which I’ve ever seen before.
For breakfast we have scrambled eggs, excellent crisply fried plantains, gallo pinto, fruits, muffins, pancakes, juice, and cafe con leche. It’s good. The taxi arrives and off go two of us, one very excited (Wendy is a geologist) and one very, very tired, to the Arenal Observatory. I walk the gardens and photograph, then hike back up to the chalet and settle down to write in the cool morning, nursing our damp riding clothes on the balcony and doing my best to cajole the moisture out. I watch the birds, and see lots of what I think are splendid hawks, but Wendy says later that they’re vultures. Meanwhile, Wendy and Micheal have a nice, fairly flat hike through rainforest to old lava flows, some of which are growing vegetation again. Wendy brings me a piece of lava, and they see a very small, very poisonous, bright yellow snake coiled on a tree called an Eyelash Pit Viper. They like to camouflage themselves on yellow fruit or flowers. Wendy and Micheal also get to play with a coati. They had a great time, and on my next trip I’ll definitely do this.
I shower again and repack (again), and head down to the office at 11:50. A nice man on the desk sends for a man in a jeep to help me bring our luggage down for check-out, and he offers to store it in the office until our driver comes at 1:00. At 12:30, while I’m journaling in the garden and not paying attention, a jeep pulls up and a man walks over to the desk, where he talks a bit. I finally realize he’s looking at me, and when I meet his eyes, I know he’s our driver, thirty minutes early and no sign yet of Micheal and Wendy, who are late. I tell him they will meet me at 1:00 and ask if he can wait, and he sits and tries impatiently to be patient. His name is Oscar, and he’s perhaps approaching thirty and impishly cute. I wait nervously, and at 12:50 Wendy and Micheal trot happily up the walk, run to the bathroom, check-out, and we pull out and away at exactly 1:00.
The jeep/van has three long seats behind Oscar, and we each take one — Micheal the first, Wendy in the middle, and me in back. As soon as we leave Arenal Lodge and hit the road, I know Oscar’s driving will be a challenge. He is fast as lightning, curves or no curves, and on the straightaways he has the nauseating tendency to gently pump the accelerator. Who drives like that?!! I’m not happy. We pass Tabacon Hot Springs and, a little farther on the other side of the road, the Tabacon Lodge, which looks beautiful — lots of gardens and open space. A bit down the road and we’re in Fortuna, and thank God Oscar has to stop for a phone call. Micheal and I eat dramamine and moan. Wendy leaps out on the trail of some pretty dresses — she is unscathed. Between the phone and Wendy’s shopping, we rest here at least 15 minutes — a godsend for the sickies, but no time into the trip at all (it’s a four hour drive from Arenal to Alajuela, our destination). Off we go again, and soon I’m actually praying he will wreck and I will die. We’re passing beautiful orchards — all ringed by “living” fences — and I can’t look at any of it. Suddenly he stops in the road next to a shack, turns and twinkles, “Momento” and disappears. I leap out of the car and make a dive into the seat next to Oscar, hoping he won’t take it as some sort of romantic pass, but desperate for stomach relief at any cost and knowing this is the only way I might survive the trip. He finally emerges from the depths of the shack with a big bag of starfruit — “carambola” he teaches us — which he describes to Wendy (the only one able to lift her head to listen) and gives her some. They’re big and smell really good — nothing like at home from Food Lion, where they are mostly both colorless and tasteless. And off we go again, he and Wendy carrying on an animated fruit conversation in English and Spanish, until he passes the next roadside stand (Oscar apparently LOVES his fruit!), where he comes to an abrupt halt (and we sigh in relief), rolls backward, and jumps out. This time he buys bundles of mandarina — green-rinded oranges — peels one for us, and we eat it. Good! He’s very happy because he bought a whole bag for the price of one (!) in San Jose. He stops down the road again for bananas, but after careful inspection and a good deal of conversation, decides “next time.” And we’re off — again — by now the dramamine and front seat position are helping immensely and I just try to sleep.
Alajuela is kind of dumpy, but I know Xandari Plantation, our hotel for tonight, won’t be. The gates look like a fancy Disneyland resort, but beyond them is, indeed, Paradise. We roll to a stop, open doors, and crumple to the ground. I wish I had been able to pull myself together enough to take his picture — he was such a friendly, funny guy — but that driving! I think he was just young and maybe a little too happy. Wendy, still carrying on her conversation with him, tipped him and we stumbled inside. We were greeted at the door by a beautiful tica (female Costa Rican) in a long, flowery dress with wavy black hair and dark eyes. Her name is Marcella. She is quiet, kind, and tentatively patient. I check us in, barely intelligible, but she only smiles and leads us down a path through spectacular flowering plants that meet overhead to form tropical tunnels.
We have Villa 18, all white stucco curves inside and out with sponge-painted doors in blues, or purples, or greens. The Villa is huge and incredible, with artwork everywhere, tapestries, stained glass windows, private courtyards (we have two!), a huge potted live orchid on the coffee table, beautiful handmade wooden furniture with deep cushions, lots of storage, a kitchen with counters covered in tiny blue tiles, handpainted table and chairs, a stocked refrigerator, a wall of French doors, chaise, two soft double beds, three terry cloth robes, a huge bathroom with a huge garden shower — one wall of which is glass and faces the courtyard. The shower floor is slate, and also features a long, curving, hand-sponged wall, and no door. There’s a lonnnnggggg lavatory counter, a separate, custom-built dressing table with a huge mirror, and a separate toilet room (you can flush the toilet paper here! always a treat). Marcella takes our order for dinner and asks when we’d like the jacuzzi ready. We grab beers and walk out to the large, curving terrace with a view of the coffee plantation and fruit orchards, and then over the towns of the valley far below. We’re just in time for sunset, and it is simply gorgeous. I race here and there snapping photos and sticking my nose into blossoms. The scents are entrancing.
We dress for dinner, and then linger long on the restaurant terrace as the thousand tiny white lights twinkle in Alajuela below us and the night sky above us. We dine on hearts of palm salad with goat cheese, thick slices of turkey breast (Thanksgiving, remember?), baked dressing slices, Costa Rican sweet potatoes (white! and yummy!) and fresh green beans. Then dessert and coffee. Unbelievable. And unbelievably priced at $12.00 per person.
Friday, November 27
I wake at 5:30 to a spectacular pink and blue streaked sunrise over the mountain-ringed Central Valley (which is actually not a valley at all, but a mesa, or plateau). I marvel at the colors, and then close my eyes again until 6:00. This is why I love to sleep with bare windows. Sunlight streams in through the stained glass, and I realize that the large half circle window is a version of a winged and haloed angel flying over the orchards. I love it, and this place is surely blessed. The sensuous curves of the villa walls, ceiling, terraces, and terrace walls have an unexpectedly soothing effect on me — rather like floating in a warm and safely-contained body of water. The environment is womb-like, yet simultaneously freeing and limitless. More to love.
I write on the terrace watching the valley awaken. The air is cool, but I’m wrapped in the fluffy white robe and soft, new white socks. A hummingbird comes to sip a giant red flower just next to the terrace, then pauses in front of me as if posing for a picture. This is the ideal rest-up and emotion-soother to prepare for our trip to the jungle today.
After packing for our journey with a cup of Wendy’s tea and slices of Oscar’s fruit, I grab a quick, hot shower in the circular, slate-floored garden bath, slip into my jungle clothes, and head over for breakfast, snapping pictures of luscious vegetation all along the way. We dine again on the terrace — fresh orange juice, plantation coffee, a plate of sliced watermelon, pineapple, papaya, and mandarina, and a basket of hot muffins to start. I get a phone call (!) for Pah-MAL-ah. It’s Costa Rica Expeditions confirming our 9:20 pick-up time and 25 pound luggage limit. Now we’re excited! I sit at the table awaiting my entree amid happily buzzing insects, and try to revel in the full nature aspect. It’s so beautiful here, but in truth, nature will seem much more in place when we reach Corcovado.
My banana pancakes arrive encircled by shaped pieces of papaya and watermelon. The pancakes are fried crisply, and each contains three circles of banana and a crusted sprinkling of granola — too yummy! We eat very leisurely, compare notes with two other dining couples, and watch the birds. Costa Rica is a birdwatching wonder — even if you don’t know the names — even if you didn’t bring binoculars. They are everywhere, and in fact exist in such abundance that their majority status seems to make them unafraid of people. And the colors! To blend in with their native habitat, they are brilliant greens, reds, blues, and yellows — something I never considered outside my familiar environment of robins and wren and the occasional cardinal. Just a wonder to watch.
A porter helps with our luggage — some headed for the jungle and some to be stored here at Xandari until we return in three days. The desk phones to tell us the car is here, and we’re on our way at 9:24 with Alex, Aaron (Ah-RONE), and Pruscilla from Costa Rica Expeditions. Alex tells us all we need to know about our accommodations, the jungle, and various safety tips (“If you’re looking up, don’t move your feet. If you’re moving your feet, look down.”) as we drive to the Coco Airport. Aaron is along for the ride, as he is a naturalist-in-training. They are extremely nice, and Pruscilla is a good, careful driver. We have a bit of a wait for our plane in a nicely furnished glass room. It’s HOT down here in the valley, just like when we arrived, but no doubt cooler than the jungle will be.
We’re in the plane! It’s much smaller than I imagined — even for a six-seater. It’s silver, and we climb in with what appears to be a real pilot in a uniform. This is more than a little comfort to me, because heights are SO not my thing, and, well, I’m soon to be airborne in something akin to a Volkwagon Beetle. Micheal’s up front with him and all the controls. Wendy’s in the rear next to a seatload of backpacks, and I’m in the center left seat next to more backpacks and two huge bags of rice and oatmeal. Yum! Dinner! I had some trepidation as we climbed in, sorted by body bulk, and a bit more as we began to roll down the runway and the pilot’s window sounded like it would rattle right out of the frame. But once we were airborne, I surprised myself by loving it, and I do mean LOVING it. What a thrill! The scenery on the hour-long flight is spectacular. I’m getting quite a brisk breeze, though from where, I can’t determine (and I’m not sure I want to know). Leaving the valley, we flew over innumerable green curving spines of mountains and quilted fields dotted evenly with pinwheels of palm fronds that must be coconut plantations. In twenty-five minutes we’re over the Pacific and flying down the jagged coastline. It’s so riveting that even the pilot is watching as we soar over cliffs, rivers, lagoons, waterfalls, and deserted beaches. Micheal, who’s flying co-pilot, says we’re at 7400 feet and flying at 95-110 knots.
From this altitude, the coastal roadway appears to be dirt. Is that possible? The coastline is alternately flatish and hilly, with vegetation right down to a narrow strip of brown sand. Ooh! Small brown stony islands jutting up into the sea — more like giant rocks, really. The coastline becomes much more convoluted with the addition of rivers (the Rio Sierpe) that separate into multitudes of wandering channels, barrier islands, deltas and the like, all of these green and glowing. The water is quite calm — we haven’t hit the surfing waves yet — and there’s not a resort to be found. I wonder where we are? More rivers, bays, inlets, islands, and peninsulas — it’s like riding in a flying geology book. As we hit the Osa Peninsula after fifty minutes in the air, we move over dense jungle. I can make out palms in and among the myriad other trees. We’re flying into more hills, but I can see the coastline bright and shining on my right now, and the sea is changing to blue. We’re nearing Carate, where we will land before our hike to Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp. This is wild, wild, wild country. Not as wild as the jungle depths of Brazil, but as close as I’ll ever come. There’s not a house or a building or a road or even a clearing in sight. Now I have coastline out both windows, with mountains ahead and wisps of gray clouds and rain splattering in long, fine lines down the windshield of the plane. The sun is brilliant on the white foam of the waves below as we fly along just ten degrees north of the equator. Descending.
And down. “Dirt runway” now seems an embellishment as we bounce along some rutted earth that has been cleared of trees in the most immediate area, but little else. As we climb down, a rough wooden plank cart hitched to a mule awaits our luggage. Someone points out our guide, and off he goes, with Wendy running along to keep up with him and pump him with questions. I turn for a last look at the little aircraft, and see our pilot standing on the doorstep tightening bolts on the roof of the plane. Micheal and I slowly bring up the rear, ambling along behind Wendy and the guide, and Eric, the manager, as he enjoys the mule cart trip down the beach. It’s a ways to camp, and flights are scheduled according to the tides, as we’ll have to ford a small stream that empties into the Pacific. The sand is dark gray, the ocean splendid, sparkling, and rambunctious. The stream we cross is not deep, but quite swift and rocky, and frankly, none too easy. We walk for forty-five minutes along the palm-studded sand. It’s hot, but overcast. Lots of blue sky, but plenty of fluffy white clouds to shield us a bit.
Lunch! Gorgeous! A platter of salad with lettuce, tomatoes, hearts of palm, cucumbers, olives, and beets, then a mix of rice and corn, succulent black beans, giant zucchini, crunchy/soft green beans with carrots and paper-thin onion rings, red snapper with a sauce, and tamarino lemonade. Then for dessert after this fabulous and achingly fresh meal, we are each served a small glass dish containing half a peach. A canned peach. In canned syrup. I find it incongruous with the gourmet fare we’ve just finished, particularly in a country famous for its fruit. But what the heck — maybe they think it’s a delicacy. After all, I haven’t seen a peach tree. Wendy, however, is incensed. “I just left the Peach Capitol of the World, and they’re serving me a canned peach half!” Just as we finish eating, it begins to rain quite heavily all around us in our thatched and open pavilion, but the rain is cool and soothing and I’m happy, and not thinking of much more than watching the drops fall and resting my mind and my body. Ahhh . . . tea with milk. Now we’re set. I wonder if I keep sitting here at this table, if they’ll just keep bringing me food . . . .
At 2:00, just as I finish my tea, the rain is gone. Micheal and Wendy are napping. I take some time to arrange the things in my platform tent, slather on the sunscreen, and adjourn to a comfortable string hammock on the bluff overlooking the pounding Pacific beneath palms that dot the blue sky like giant, fringy stars. Too much happiness. So far the only bugs I’ve seen are some ants and flies. Two pair of scarlet macaws fly over. At 3:00, a gray cloud wanders by and greets me with two large raindrops, so I reluctantly move to my covered front tent-porch, but I was beginning to sleep too much anyway, and I don’t want to get groggy.
I’m in Tent 12. It’s quite roomy and breezy with two wooden bed platforms made of 2×4’s with mattresses made up very nicely, a long bamboo table between the beds with a shelf for stuff, a big water bottle, a pottery candleholder (obviously, there’s no electricity in the tent), a hand-dipped candle, and six just-picked hibiscus blossoms adorning the pillows and beds. It’s quite charming. The ceiling is screen and set beneath a pitched canvas roof, and there are canvas eaves all the way around to keep out blowing rain. The walls are screen, with canvas shades that can be rolled up for air circulation or rolled down for privacy. The floor is raised and boarded, so we’re on a platform. This is why they call it a “luxury tent.” Oddly, the bluff is covered in grass and a tiny-leaved ground cover like baby’s tears, and beautifully landscaped with labeled flowering and fruiting plants and pretty hibiscus trees.
After a bit, I decide to stroll on the beach, walking among beautiful stones of greens and reds strewn across the black sand (which is actually a dark gray), and perfect shells — most complete with sea creatures living inside. Up near the forest, shells are scurrying every which way. I pass a waterfall emptying onto the beach and then come to a river, or wide-ish stream, full of rocks. Two young girls are playing there, and with some surprise I notice that just behind the palms at this meeting of river and sea is a small tin shack in a yard full of chickens and small dogs. If the forest were not protected, can you imagine what this piece of prime oceanfront property would be worth?
I step gingerly into the stream and try to walk up it, rocking on the unsettled stones in the rushing water, as far as I can, which isn’t very, hoping for a glimpse of jungle wildness, but my progress is hampered by my awareness of eyes watching my back. I know the girls are wary of my presence, and I think they’re guarding their home, which certainly includes not only the shack, but the stream and the rocks and the jungle beyond. They silently watch my every move until I’m safely back on the black sand and heading back toward the lodge.
When I return, Wendy is out, and we set off at 4:00 to explore the loop trail that will take us up into the jungle that hangs on the mountain. It’s too late to go, as it will be very dark soon, so we plan only to walk as far as the lookout in a small clearing that juts out over the ocean. The trail is just beautiful, though steep, with crisscrossing roots that aid every upward step. About a third of the way up, Wendy hears a strong rattling in the trees and spies spider monkeys. There are several of them, and they look so happy and free hanging in crooks of the tallest trees, flitting along the branch ends against the sky, or walking four-footed along limbs with that long curving tail. They’re reddish-brown, and much larger than I expected. This is such a treat! Wendy says they make no noise, so that their presence is only discernible by the whooshing of the branches as they leap. We see another farther on — very, very high — and I’m able to spot this one by sight. Wendy sees something brown, tail-less, and possum-sized run across the trail in front of us, and we’re later told it was probably an agouti. Everywhere there are den holes, but I still don’t see any bugs.
Finally we reach the overlook, and are rewarded with a beautiful, cool, high view of the Pacific. The overlook faces southwest, and Paul (more on Paul to come) later tells us that we’re looking towards Manila. We’ve agreed to head right back down while we can still see, but I want to sneak a peak at the rain forest trail I’ve traveled so far to see. Oddly, it starts here. And so I creep ahead, and what meets my eyes has a stronger pull on me than any gravity. I must go in. The difference in the two trails is frankly jaw-dropping, and in fact, that’s exactly the way I walk through it. Suddenly, the already beautiful forest becomes flatter, muddier, filled with ferns and mammoth tropical plants and giant butterflies and strangler figs that reach up so high that I can’t see the tops, and whose bottoms have been reduced to a delicate tracery that seems laughably unable to support the sheer stature of such a magnificent plant. Surely, this must have been the inspiration for the soaring gothic cathedrals. Any one tree is, in fact, a cathedral in itself. If you look, the plant life high up the trunks of the trees is amazing — thousands of dollars worth of tropical houseplants just dozing and reposing on their adopted homes high on the bark of some random and welcoming tree. Because the rainforest is so dense, these plants would never survive on the ground, so they hop a lift toward the light anywhere they can find it, seeds dropped by birds on branches and germinated in the continuous damp. And so they thrive in the unlikeliest of habitats.
I know that I have to leave now, and it’s hard, but I’m eternally grateful for this glimpse of wonder. There’s nothing that could keep me from returning tomorrow, and I have two more days to explore this fairytale world.
We manage to make it back down the trail that is much darker and quite slippery now, just in time, as we had both wandered off quite foolishly without our flashlights. We return as the sun is sinking into the Pacific in front of our tents, and we’re surprised to find bats flying skittishly just above our heads. Wendy wakes Micheal for this, because he loves bats. We sit on the porch to watch them in the twilight, an evening’s entertainment as we snack on salty chex mix and suck bottled water. Suddenly the rain falls in torrents, and I stick my hand beyond the eaves to gather palmfuls to wash away my prodigious sweat. As the rain lessens, a shadow moves in front of the tent, and Micheal grabs a flashlight. It’s the size and shape of a quail, but the light reveals a GIANT frog. When we leave the tent and ascend the hill to the hammock house at 6:00 to journal and wait for dinner, I hear a noise that I jokingly compare to a car alarm — “WHOOP . . . WHOOP . . . WHOOP.” This is identified by the guides inside as a frog also, and I wonder with a shudder at the size he must be, no longer concerned about how I will secure my tent from merely human intruders. He never stops the chant. At least I can tell where he is.
As we sit and sample the local beer, we’re approached by Haviere, a ravishingly gorgeous long-haired guide. He asks when we’d like to schedule our hike up the mountain to the tree platform, from which we’ll spend a couple of hours watching the rainforest life at tree canopy level. We decide to meet at 8:30 AM tomorrow. An earlier group will see the prime wildlife out for their morning feeding, but we’ll be able to sleep a bit later, as well as fortify our bodies with breakfast. If we change our minds, he says, we can go in the afternoon. I wonder if he’ll be our guide. There seem to be two, both male, and both with very long, silky black hair. I suspect they are part indigenous. They are Haviere and Paul, and they are both extremely nice and kind.
I’m quite surprised by the degree to which they leave you on your own here. This is dangerous country — wild, uncharted, roadless, and communication-free. If I fell in the river or slipped off a trail, no one would know, and no one could guess where to look. It is very, very remote. The information sheet we were given on arrival asks that we notify a staff member if we begin to feel even a slight bit ill, so that they can radio out for possible emergency transport, which takes quite a while. The implied message is: don’t take chances, because there’s little help available. Before we arrived, Wendy and Micheal arranged to camp overnight on the tiny and very high tree platform, but Eric told us as soon as we arrived that it simply wouldn’t be possible. One of the radios was out for repair, and he wouldn’t let us risk the lack of communication, even with a guide in attendance. There are many ways to get in trouble — some of it big-time serious — and yet much of the time they let you use your own judgment and make your own decisions just as if you had good sense and maybe even some experience. But I love it.
Hmmm . . . . A solid hour of chanting, and suddenly at 7:00 the godzilla frog just stops! And coincidentally, the dinner conch blows. Seems a little bit too convenient for me. Must be one of those “sounds of the jungle” ambiance tapes.
And here we go . . . a greenish lemony fruit juice, hot yellowish ball rolls, a salad platter of lettuces, tomato slices, olives and asparagus, a medley of squash and green and yellow cauliflower, vermicelli with parmesan, a beef and red pepper stroganoff. From my table I can see a row of low tropical hedging at my left, the palms beyond, and then hear the crash of the ocean beneath fluffy clouds so white that they’re visible even against the night sky. The roar of the waves is so loud that I can’t imagine how that giant frog was loud enough to be so very audible over the ocean.
After we stuff ourselves on an excellent dinner, the lights go out, and from the kitchen comes a cute tico carrying a big birthday cake and trying valiantly to keep the two candles lit in the night breeze. We all sing “Happy Birthday” to a nice man whose name I don’t know, and then we’re served squares of divine creamy yellow custard/cake with a meringue-type icing in a pool of brilliant green liquid — minty — and a slice of birthday cake, which is almost bread-like. Not nearly as sweet as the green pool confection.
It amazes and delights me how the clouds and the white seafoam make nightlights against the darkness, and I long to lay beside them. As we’re finishing dinner at 8:05, it’s an hour til the electricity is turned off. I can’t wait to shower, rinse out my clothes, and snuggle into bed. To say goodnight, there’s a small, slender bug with shiny copper-colored wings sitting on the table before me — and who knows what surprises await in my tent?
Saturday, November 28
Okay, so that didn’t really fall under the category of “snuggling.” And the cold showers are somewhat less refreshing than they want you to believe. I crawled into bed just before lights out at 9:00 and marveled at the still-white clouds and thunderous foamy sea and the airy spaciousness of my tent. I closed my eyes expecting to fall straight off to sleep, and nothing happened. So began a series of sleeping, waking, and re-sleeping that lasted until 4:45 AM when the light began to change. At 5:30 I was up for the day.
Breakfast is, apparently, any time between 6:00 and 8:00, unlike the seated meals at lunch and dinner. I thought I heard a conch faintly at 6:00, but we waited for a louder one, which didn’t come. Thoughtful, for sleeping people. We hit the table at 7:00 and were served juice (orange, I think, but it could be anything here), tea or coffee, good granola with toasted peanuts, watermelon, pineapple and papaya, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast (I love the toast here — no mushy white bread), jam and gallo pinto. This will help make up for the sleep I lost. The first platform group left at 7:00 with Haviere — a regular family in tennis shoes. The dad wore a t-shirt with Bob Dylan on the back. This gave me more confidence somehow. Our group will leave between 8:30 and 9:00.
On the walk back to the tent, we see huge, mudded ants’ nests hanging in the trees (the ground is too wet to sustain the nest), and four gray and white striped Jesus Christ lizards — so named because the can walk on water. They are about two-thirds the size of my forearm. These four are all female; the males have a big red pouch under their chins. They are the color of tree bark, and very hard to pick out. You need a good eye here. And it sure is great to be surrounded by naturalists.
It’s 8:00 AM and swelteringly hot with clear blue sky and fluffy clouds, but not much shade. We’re all dripping with sweat and inertia, and facing a long, uphill hike.
At 3:07, I’m swaying gently in a purple, white and silver hammock of rope and colorful twisted cotton threads in the hammock house. I’ve had a delightful hour’s nap here snugly bordered by Micheal and Wendy while a long, steady, gentle, pattering rain sounds on the thatch high above us. Now they’ve left for a three hour horseback ride through the jungle and down the beach. (Another horseback ride in the rain — I’m happy here.) It’s much cooler this afternoon, but even so, the breeze is slight. For the ride, they had to wear long pants — too hot! — and slick ponchos, but that isn’t the part they’ll remember.
We met our guide, Paul, this morning at 8:30 on the bridge between the dining pavilion and the trailhead. Wendy and I immediately began to feel him out, as he’ll not only be taking us up a mountain, but hoisting us up by rope onto a small forest platform, and protecting us for two hours as we sit, certainly vulnerable, a hundred feet above the forest floor. We are pretty much in his hands, not a power I would normally allow any human.
Paul tells us they call him Tortuga, which I believe is the name of a tortoise, because he is slow and quiet and patient. I tell him I am very, very pleased to hear that, as I am no world-class hiker. He’s about 5’10” and slender, wearing a pair of jams that Jason would love. He has long, long, very straight black hair that he pulls into a knot at the nape of his neck and ties with twine. I ask how many work at the lodge, and he says 17 right now. I ask if they stay here always or come and go, and he says most work ten days and then have four days off. He works twenty-four days and then has ten days off. I ask if he always works here (Costa Rica Expeditions will take you anywhere, and they have three lodges — Corcovado (Rainforest), Monteverde (Cloud Forest), and Tortuguerro (on the Caribbean coast). He says mostly here, but he also gives tours of San Jose and occasionally works at the other lodges. He’s probably around twenty, but wiser than most. Someone asks about the cougars that have been sighted in the forest here, and he has seen them. He also tells us that several days ago, around 10:00 AM, he was reading in his tent when he looked up and saw a puma watching him! He said the puma looked into his eyes and stood there for maybe two minutes, and then walked away into the forest. After I spend the next two hours with Paul, this no longer surprises me.
As we start off, he frequently stops to tell us about the trees or vines or fruits or flowers, making the rise not only informative and meaningful, but easy enough on the muscles, joints and heart. We see a beautiful yellow and red butterfly with wings as thin as two beating matchsticks, and a giant blue morpho flies in and around and among each of us. He shows us how you can play the drums (or send help signals) by beating against the hollow bases of certain trees. Paul points out a vine which grows in parts of the forest with some sun access called a water vine. If you cut it with a knife, you can get quite a bit of water out, like sucking on a platypus pouch I suppose, and save yourself from dehydration. There was a tree with scarred-over slash marks up its trunk — a Poterea tree, which is in the same family as the gum tree. The Indians considered the sap of this tree very precious, using it in religious ceremonies and also for collecting gold powder because of its extreme stickiness (an interesting combination — God and Gold). I spotted a pretty black bird with a bright red head like a hibiscus flower and asked Paul about it. It’s a red-capped manakin, “the guard of the forest”, and very rare. He gives me the “special sight award” and says we’ve had a real treat. We saw four poison dart frogs, which are quite small, and black with neon green markings. Paul says the markings are like a fingerprint, and each is different. They are common here, but a novice would certainly never see one. You really have to learn how to see. We also saw balsa trees, used by natives for making beds and canoes. The wood is flexible and water-resistant, and the fruit is a favorite of scarlet macaws.
There was lots more, but the going got rougher and I got more breathless and drop-dead exhausted with a bit of nausea from the extreme heat, lagging quite a ways behind with Micheal to look after me (he has bad knees too, lucky for me). Wendy, however, made brisk time and took notes the whole way, making it easy for me to keep up my journal — group travel does have its strong points. The many den holes we noticed yesterday are actually made by crabs (!) that live in the forest up to ten miles from the sea. At certain times of the year they migrate to the ocean to breed — an ovarian pilgrimage of sorts — and then return to the hills. They’re called Halloween Crabs because they’re black and purple and orange, and have very strong claws that they keep raised and ready. And who wouldn’t, when you’re that far removed from your own element? Paul says you have to walk very carefully in the forest at night, because they’ll chomp down on your toes in a flash. I marvel that anyone would even consider walking these wild woods in the night.
We also saw the Kapok or Ceba tree, which has spikes all along its trunk, shaped rather like thinnish Hershey’s kisses. In prehistoric times, the giant sloth (the size of a grizzly) liked to eat this tree, trunk and all. So it developed the spikes (why can’t I do that?). The giant sloth is now extinct, and the Kapok tree remains. Only the young tree has spikes now, when the trunk is thin and vulnerable to weight. When the tree is strong enough to support climbing animals, the spikes fall off. It’s also called the Tree of Life, growing larger than any other in the forest, and the indigenous (Maya) believed that the tree holds all souls before birth and after death — one soul in each tree — so no one is to cut it. I think this concept is too beautiful for words, or my words anyway.
There was another tree with very flaky bark, so that when epiphytes such as bromeliads try to attach, the bark slips right off and the hitchhiker is easily shed. The bark is also rubbed on sunburn. Because of the way the peninsula is situated, it gets both sunrise and sunset, as well as all the sun in between — much UV light.
Near the platform, there’s a peaked canopy with a gear box and resting spot and three wilder-eyed, dark-skinned Costa Ricans. I only catch the name of one — Johnny — but they are collectively known as the “Bad Boys.” They hoist the winches that will elevate us to the viewing platform attached to the tallest tree. The early group is just about to descend so that we can ascend. I realize with a start that the platform is quite high — much higher than at Monteverde. And as the family before us is being lowered, they plunge scary distances in a fell swoop. I begin to balk, and inquire if we’ll have to employ the “handbrake” (mine is broken) (I’m referring to muscle-power) on this ride. I’m told no, that the winching and braking are completely controlled by the Bad Boys supporting the full 100% of our weight. All 200 feet up. (If only they had a more comforting name.) I’m assured that the “dropping” is optional. Although the biggest drop I see is for Aaron’, the guide-in-training. His initiation, they say.
After more consideration and a bit more staring up into the tree, I decide I’m definitely not going up, but I’m leery of staying here with the Bad Boys for two hours, even though my brother will be, well, helplessly stuck in a tree far above me. I decide I can just hike back down, and then I realize I can hike back with the group just finishing. Okay! So I sidle over to Tortuga and tell him I’d like to do that, and he winces. “Do you mind?” I ask, and at this both Wendy and Micheal pop up on either side of me and tell me how safe and easy it will be, how Monteverde was much harder, since I had to take a more active role, and Wendy hugs me and pats me on the back, both of them telling me I just have to go. This is, after all, what we’ve come for. Paul says I’ll be sitting in a sort of chair (earlier he referred to it as a “diaper”), that’s it’s very comfortable, and that he’ll have them hoist me halfway up, and then I can decide whether or not I want to continue. I’m frankly terrified of heights, and this is quite a stretch for me. An unthinkable stretch, in fact. The platform, he assures me, is “just like being in your tent,” and the Bad Boys won’t drop me if he is there. Wendy pats me some more. So I remove my emotional self to that “other place” and tune out, and I’m strapped by the Bad Boys into a full body harness, which looks just like the webbing that parachutists wear.
Paul has to go up first, so he’ll be there to catch us as we get to the platform. He isn’t winched, but instead uses a gripping carrabiner and foot loop to climb the 200 foot rope. Maybe it’s the only way he can get up without someone on top; maybe he does it as a workout; maybe he wants to impress us. I’m big-time impressed. Wendy goes second, loving it all the way, and I’m next. My harness is hooked to the rope, and then the big blue diaper that will carry me. And then I start to rise. And I rise, and I rise, and I rise, my eyes shut tight, my glasses off, my hands gripping the rope and my mind intoning: “I’m swaying in a hammock, swaying in a hammock.” I look like a fool, but it works. Several times I peek, and quickly shut my eyes again tight — I’m hanging in midair far, far, far above the earth and at the mercy of two men — strangers. Finally, Wendy calls to me and Paul speaks and reaches for me. I grab a harness around the huge tree branch while he ties me to the tree with a long black webbed leash called a “monkey tail.” When I’m secured to the tree, he unhooks the rope and sends it back down for Micheal. So I have about five minutes to gingerly look around, trying to slow my heart and steady my racing fears about being somewhere that humans don’t belong. Rainforest trees are very, very tall in order to reach through the dense growth to sunlight, and we are mostly looking down onto the tops of trees. We’re above almost everything in the forest, and there’s an amazing amount of activity in the canopy — as if the actual tops of the trees are a hidden pastureland for all the animals we never see and never even suspect are there. An incredible privilege.
There are several birds just next to us playing. One is white and very pretty. Paul tells us the name of it (which I’ve sadly forgotten), and just then it begins to sprinkle. The platform is a wire mesh — sort of like girders, and about eight feet square. You can see straight through it to the treetops beneath us (pretty far beneath us), as well as to the Bad Boys on the winching platform below (they are mere specks from here). By now Micheal is arriving, having enjoyed his ride thoroughly, and the rain is hard and steady. We don’t feel it much through the leaves of this giant tree, but Paul says we will have to leave. (Only later does he tell us why — metal platform — rain — lightning.)
So Micheal rides up and then has to ride right back down again, chagrined. And I’m going down without having made my peace with going up. The boys bring me down slowly and steadily with no stops and no drops, and I’m very relieved. Then Wendy asks to be dropped and squeals delightedly, flailing her arms about. We’re hearing howler monkeys in the distance. Though I’ve heard about them and how loud they are, you have to hear them to believe them. They roar like lions. Exactly like lions! And that roar carries well! It sounds like they’re quite close by. Too cool. We hike back in the rain through primary forest so primeval and beautiful that it seems unquestionably sacred. Giant, giant trees and vines so thick you can’t get both arms around them. There are roots traveling out from tree trunks that are fully as tall as I am. Not the trees — but the roots! Roots five feet tall! Paul stops several times to listen to the high, shrill call of a white hawk, which they call “the spirit of the forest,” but his eyes can’t find it. We come to the monkey spot again (a gentleman on the trail yesterday said that he sees the monkeys here every day), and this time there’s a whole slew of them — about fifteen white-faced capuchins limb-walking, leaping, rustling and playing in circles. They’re so beautiful, so free, and so happy. They are nothing like the monkeys kept in zoos.
Paul is willing to take us again this afternoon since we missed our two hour viewing, or tomorrow at 4:00 AM (so “we could make the best of the morning,” he said! Obviously he has a much stronger body than I do.). We have a morning plane to catch, and he tries everything he can think of to accommodate us. Micheal and Wendy seem gung-ho to arrange for the early morning hike, even though Micheal is exhausted and achy and not feeling well. I’m thinking I’ve already gotten my $69 worth, even though I now know the viewing platform would be spectacular. I’m reluctant to make the hike again. Soon I will DEEPLY regret this.
Lunch is excellent — again. We have a blended juice of papaya, pineapple, and blackberry (it’s pink!), yesterday’s rolls split in half and toasted with garlic, a salad of tomato, lettuce, cucumber and tuna, delicious squash casserole, rice with a hint of curry, black beans, and chicken breasts in mustard sauce. Dessert is half a cinnamon-and-clove-baked apple with thick cream. And then . . . the hammocks. I haven’t even been to my tent since 8:15 this morning. Better sleeping here. At 4:00 a large new group arrives. They are youngish — maybe German — energetic and boisterous. I wonder how their presence will alter the well-established stillness of the place. Their tents are behind the hammock house on the hill. It’s probably cooler there — I wonder if there’s a view?
At 5:27, there has been no sunset — just dimming gray clouds. It is, however, turning into Happy Hour around here with the influx of way too many strangers. How long can I last? How long do I want to last? The family from the platform hike this morning has come in to wait for dinner, and that helps my comfort level. Paul and Haviere are bartending. At 5:38 the WHOOP starts again. I guess he’s visiting the pond just beside the hammock house. A few minutes later, Micheal comes in, happy and showered. He smells good, unlike me, plus he got to gallop down the beach. Their guide took them north up the beach and then back, passing several rivers, but that’s all he has time to tell me before hitting a hammock. I decide to freshen up a bit and have a beer — this one, Cerveza Pilsen. Not bad. But I think Lonely Planet was right about the Imperial being a bit better. By 6:30 and half a beer later, it’s actually beginning to feel cool and pleasant up here on a bit of a bluff, but the place is so full that I’m afraid they’ll hold off dinner as long as we keep charging drinks. There’s music, and I’m surprised to see Haviere flipping through a notebook of CD’s. He plays Enigma, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Marley.
And the dinner conch at 7:20. An unidentifiable orange soup with celery (I could only taste the celery), carrots with bits of squash (rather like the more customary squash with bits of carrot), fresh broccoli, real mashed potatoes, sauteed shrimp, rolls, and lemonade. Then a slice of pie with either a very thick crust or a bottom layer of shortbread topped with strawberry preserves. Then tea. Eric comes by and says we’ll need to be at the airstrip at 8:00 AM tomorrow — slight schedule change — which means we won’t be able to make the canopy platform in the morning even leaving at 4:00. The only upside is that we’ll get back to Xandari sooner, giving us more time to play in the lush grounds and explore the trails. Time for a shower and bed. Just when I’m beginning to feel more comfortable here, it’s time to go.
Sunday, November 29
I lay in bed awake last night until they finally turned the lights out around 10:30. It was, after all, Saturday night (hard to remember what that means when you have a husband and two kids), and they did have all those hard-partying Germans to supply with beer. They were having so much fun that it made me jealous, wondering why I was in a tent in the dark all alone in such an incredible place. Once the lights went out, I slept much better than the night before, waking only once. Got up at 5:15 to a pattering drizzle on the tent (the swarming heat and humidity teaches you quickly to love rain here) (and also to carry an umbrella at all times) and a gray sky. Now I know why they’ve planted such a thick carpet of grass throughout the camp. There really is surprisingly little mud given the amount of rain. I’m so glad we didn’t come during the dry season, as there would have been no heat relief. In November, everything is well-watered and brilliantly green. It’s quite still in the early morning, but the kitchen lights are on. I think of the boy who serves us every morning. I don’t know his name, but he wears a black cord with a stunningly carved turtle. Tortuga wears a ceramic one. They are such quiet and respectful people, certainly opposite in temperament and manner than the large group of Germans, who keep letting loose with whoops of various kinds — quite a jarring change from the WHOOP of the pond frog. They drank until the lights went out last night, and I hope the boys made lots of money.
We go to breakfast at 6:30, all packed and ready for our 7:30 departure. Breakfast is the same as yesterday, only with ham instead of bacon. It’s kind of fun that every time they bring the food, you have to sweep a couple of bugs off your plate before filling it.
Paul comes to say goodbye as we’re taking a last hammock swing. Then at 7:30 we are simply to begin walking down the beach. The family is walking also, as well as two horses and carts, Urbana the horse man, a horse driver on one cart, and Eric on the other. Eric is a funny guy. Micheal and Wendy say he’s a carbon copy of some roller skating guy on “Caroline in the City”, but since I don’t watch TV, he’s just a little quirky to me. He says he’s from San Jose, and Costa Rican. I’m skeptical. He likes to use the phrase, “Bummer!”
We have a bit of a wait as everything is juggled into the two waiting planes. I look back at the hills of the rainforest and am overcome with tears. I knew I felt an otherworldly bond here, but even I wasn’t aware that it was this strong. I have to tear myself away, but I do it. I wish instead that I were strong enough to give into these feelings and stay long enough to explore and know the hold it has over me, but at this point, it’s looking like an eternal mystery. We lift off at 8:30. We three, the pilot, and a guy from Costa Rica Expeditions. It’s lightly raining, but this soon passes, and this time we fly south over the Golfo Dulce, which is incredibly beautiful. This countryside is so bountiful — voluptuously green and hilly with writhing rivers — and almost totally undeveloped. Here and there I see a small house, but there are so few, and even fewer roads. I’m so grateful for these two small plane rides and the opportunity to glimpse so much more of this country than I could ever have seen in a week otherwise. The flight is exhilarating, and I could do it for a long, long time. But I left my heart on that jungle trail at Corcovado. I hope it’s safely inside the kapok tree.
I think back on Paul’s story of the puma. Paul wears his soul in his eyes, and no animal or beast would harm him. He would be safe anywhere. I move slowly and often heavily, as if unaccustomed to my own body, as if I have only just this moment come into it. Tortuga is a long-legged cat, silent and stealthy, aware of every sigh the forest breathes. I suspect he is human only in body — and only barely that. He appears and leads us toward the mystery of another realm, but I believe his home is the kapok tree in the night.
As we pass very close to the forest mountains now, I can see long cascades of water spilling down the hillsides in shimmering ribbons of light and life.
After a glorious trip, we return to Xandari, which is beginning to feel like home. A long, hot shower feels fantastic after three days, but I’m sad to be washing the remnants of jungle off my body. I guess the soul of Costa Rica stays in Costa Rica. We have a different villa this time, this one with a thatched umbrella on the terrace, and just at the peak, a beautiful green and yellow bird poses to welcome us. We’re in time for lunch, and I have a toasted sandwich of grilled eggplant, red onions, feta and pesto (admittedly not a very Costa Rican choice, but good) and tres leches cake, a very Costa Rican dessert made with three kinds of milk. It’s divine, and when you press your fork in for a bite, milk seeps out onto the plate. Very creamy, and unlike anything I’ve had before. Wendy has a ginger chicken salad sandwich and tiramisu (even less Costa Rican!), and Micheal has Pura Vida (“the good life”) chicken salad. It’s good. We listen to Enya’s Secret Life of Trees on the sound system.
Afterwards, Wendy is determined to visit an artisan’s village outside San Jose, and she hitches a ride in Alissa’s taxi as she leaves work for the day. By way of that arrangement, we learn that Alissa, the sweet, young, nervous, blond day manager, is Italian on her father’s side. Meanwhile, Micheal and I schedule a massage (my first!) for 4:00, and I take off with a trail map to hunt for the waterfalls. This time I descend in front of the villas through the coffee plants and then the encroaching jungle, down, down, down to the river. I pass pretty bridges and benches and sculpture, arching banana trees that provide a canopy for me, trails bordered by banks of impatiens, huge flowering shrubs, and funky, hand-painted guide signs on weathered wood. Every guard rail is made of living fence, which I’ve come to love — lengths of branch cut from certain live trees and set into the earth to root and sprout, so that nothing is killed. I made it to the first three waterfalls on what is a spectacularly beautiful trail, moving much too quickly to appreciate it properly, but I want to see as much as I can. I can’t wait to come back tomorrow for a long, leisurely walk.
Got back to the villa at 3:45, breathless, red-faced, and sweat-drenched (my last clean shirt), and jumped in the shower. Janice (Zshah-nees’) and her partner arrived early to set up, and the magnificent hour of pure pleasure began. Ah, the oils, the soft, soft hands, the friction and easing and pushing of these overworked and unaccustomed muscles. I thought I’d fall straight off to sleep afterwards, but back on my feet again I was, instead, exhilarated. To celebrate, we open the two Imperial beers, and I save the bottlecaps for Jason. Micheal and I begin snapping photos of the sunset in earnest, and then Wendy arrives laden with treasures. She even brought me a present — a Costa Rican cookbook with the tres leches recipe.
We dine again over the lights of Alajuela, with the adorable young Gorges serving us. I want to take him home (but I don’t). They have spinach soup, in which floats bits of spinach quiche and bits of tortilla. I have a salad platter layered with lettuce, then cucumber, then tomato slices, then feta, and a light dressing, rolls made of many grains, and Chardonnay. Then a delicious pasta primavera. Light on actual vegetables, but a very good sauce — you couldn’t tire of it. Wonderful, wonderful coconut flan. The evening is quite cool. I’ve added a sweatshirt, but I’m beginning to shiver. The jacuzzi is calling. I hate, hate, hate to go to sleep tonight, because when I wake up, it will be the day I have to leave.
Monday, November 30 (sob . . .)
Opened my eyes at 5:30 or so to another beautiful pink-and-blue-streaked sunrise, dozed again, then up to the terrace in my snuggly white robe at 6:00. The sun is so bright that I sit with my back to the East, and it warms me through the robe as cool, teasing breezes dance around my bare legs.
I’m happily thinking back on all the wonderful people we’ve met here. They definitely share the common characteristics of patience, gentle pace, and respect (my favorite). When they reach for you, whether in massage, or to clear a dinner dish, or to fasten a body harness, they do so with such gentleness, such a sense of the reverence of each person’s humanity. I have never been treated or touched like that before — it as if they are touching you not as a body of flesh, but as a pure and holy soul — and it is divine. Their respect makes you love yourself — and I have learned a wonderful lesson in this that I hope never to forget.
We all agree that Miguel at the Cloud Forest Lodge was the friendliest and most outgoing. His eagerness to please us knew no bounds, and yet still he was unfailingly gentle. He was the perfect initiation to the country.
Paul, with his eyes that looked so deeply into you and latched onto the back of your skull and wouldn’t let go. He spoke directly to me throughout most of the rainforest hike, and though he spoke in a beautiful English that was both culturally charming and easy to understand, it was as if he knew my deafness (I did not tell him) and simply took hold of my eyes as a bridge to deliver the knowledge securely from his body to mine. It was as if he was not at all human, but in fact the essence and spirit and soul of all the forest. Though he wore a human form, his manner and wisdom and animal-like movement betrayed him. If someone had told me he was a mirage, or a changeling, or an evolved centaur, I would have believed them easily. And then — sitting one afternoon by the overlook, he saw some travel pins on Micheal’s leather hat and said, “Jackson Hole! I used to live there!” His father worked there when Paul was eight. He said it was very, very beautiful. What does this experience tell me? That there are pure spirits living among us throughout the world. I imagine so many have settled into the wilder parts, yes. I hunger for more.
And Janice, Micheal’s masseuse. When she learned of our homes in Georgia and South Carolina, she laughed gaily, remembering time spent in North Carolina. She had come for an extended stay, but left after a month — “too cold!” she said (it’s a constant 70 degrees in San Jose), and frankly not as pretty as her home. She was so young and pretty, with a short black skirt and tights and a lime green blouse. My masseuse had lips the color of raspberries. She wore jeans and shoes with a little heel that were the only clue of her movement as she circled the table. She moved around me like a butterfly.
The guys are up now, and sweet Wendy has just brought me tea. The sun is behind a cloud and it’s much cooler now, but the sky is still a beautiful blue.
“Brugmansia suaveolens, Family: Solanaceae; Origin: SE Brazil; Common Name: Angel’s Trumpet; Flowers, Fruit and Leaves are all poisonous. All parts of the plant contain a strong narcotic.” This is the plant I’ve been coveting. The huge, white, downward-hanging lily-shaped flowers have an intoxicating scent. The bush is about five feet tall, and open-branched like a fig tree, with large leaves and a long beanish seed pod. The flowers hang like white-gloved hands of Amazon maidens — no wonder, since they come from Brazil. The blooms are about six inches long.
Breakfast of excruciatingly fresh orange juice from the plantation, fresh fruits, banana muffins, cafe con leche, and the superb banana/granola pancakes. I ask to take Allisa’s picture and she poses with Micheal and Wendy, blushingly, shyly, wide-eyed and giggly. I wish we could take her home, too. We sit and talk over breakfast, making elaborate plans to return home and paint our houses and furniture in the glowing, vibrant colors of Xandari. We definitely want to make tables.
The song that keeps coming into Wendy’s head is a commercial for bacon-flavored dog treats. Consequently, she has requested bacon everywhere we go, but she’s only been able to get it once. I predict a bacon binge on our return.
It’s 3:15 and we’re in line for take-off (damn, damn, damn). I’m sitting here somewhat glumly. I just hate the threat of getting so far away from what I’ve learned. I’m tired, a little sweaty, and sad. Whooooooossshhhhhh! I love to fly.
We had to leave most of our breakfast on the table — just too much! And at 9:45 it was now or never for the hike. We took the coffee trail down toward the waterfalls, but due to the steepness of the trail and our time limitations, we sadly had to skip falls 1-4 and head down the easier trail to Cascade 5, the one with the swimming pond. That means I never got to see #4, the really long one, and I’ll have to return.
The trails were lovely and the cascade was lovely, and the flowers, and all manner of happy, flitting butterflies. I saw again the red and yellow matchstick butterfly from Corcovado, and over the waterfall we saw a very large, very plump bird sitting in the top of the tree, but the sky was too bright to make out his colors. He looked kind of like a gargantuan pigeon. Next came the bamboo forests, with towering stands and trunks about six inches in diameter. In between the horizontal bands, many of the trunk sections were vertically striped in yellow and green — no doubt some manner of forest code. The trails here were carpeted in strips of eggshell-colored bamboo bark, giving the forest glen a sort of snowy look that was very peaceful. The final section of the trail passes the vegetable garden, in which a gnarled old Costa Rican farmer worked. When he stood still, he looked for all the world like a worn garden scarecrow. We waved to each other.
As we were bringing our luggage to the lobby for check-out, Alissa popped out to look for me, handing me a telephone message from Rick, the stranger who made all the arrangements for our itinerary. I picked up the phone to call him, and he immediately asked me to wait a minute while he finished a conversation with the guides at Monteverde. I know he’s from Canada, and I was surprised to hear him chattering in fluent Spanish. How I want to be able to communicate in other languages! So we’re busy trying to check out, and he wants to know all about our trip, bit by bit. Maybe he’s just being friendly and asking as a lead-in, because he has finally realized his math error. He asks about Monteverde, and I tell him how great it was, but that he undercharged us. We ended up having a really enjoyable conversation while the others patiently waited for me to finish. But I didn’t want to rush him. He even wanted to know about Corcovado, and he doesn’t even do business there. It made me feel really good about all the people I chose to trust on this trip.
Alissa made us picnic lunches of tarragon chicken breasts with lettuce and tomoato on toast, which were still warm when we ate them at the airport after checking in. Our driver took my hand when I tipped him, thanked me graciously, and said he would see me next time.
The movie (“Six Days and Seven Nights”) and plane ride have helped me adjust to real life a bit, and ease the heaviness I felt at the airport. A trip through baggage claim, customs, another check-in and dash to the next plane in Atlanta should jolt me firmly back into the world we choose to know. I suppose in a way, airport hell is a little gift from God. It helps us forget the pain of having discovered a glimmer of new life, and then having it wrenched away, plunging us back into habits and conformities. Are Americans the only ones who live this blind existence so far removed from the essence of their souls? When I return, people will want me to cover my wounds — the wounds of touching life directly like bare eyes to the brilliant sun — because the reality of my openness, my real-ness, will be too much for them. They’ll toss every manner of petty insignificance my way, to heap upon me like the scabs that encapsulate us, making us unfeeling and therefore all the same. How resentful I am of these efforts, and how grateful I am to those who let me breathe and bleed freely, wounds and all, so that I never forget.
I just realized that I’m wearing shorts and a tee shirt. I wonder how cold it will be at home on this last day of November. Last night at dinner, Wendy mentioned Christmas, and I realized with disbelief and dismay that it will be the frantic rush to December 25 when I wake up tomorrow. There were a few wreaths here and there in Costa Rica, and they looked so out of place. I had convinced myself it was summer all over the world.
And then home, to hugs and kisses, hugs and kisses.
I’m in my backyard on the second day of December, warm in an unseasonal wealth of sunlight and heat, cradled in a hammock, peering between the sapling walls of a garden playhouse at a large Mexican Sunflower plant ablaze with orange blossoms and delicate orange butterflies, trying in vain to pretend that I am still in Costa Rica.
I can’t do it. Oh, the sun and flora and fauna, though far from tropical, are pleasant in their way. The hammock sways as hammocks should, and the breeze ruffles the hairs on my neck in just the way that I love. But somewhere inside my house, a clock is ticking, insistent on my return to real life.
In a few minutes, I’m going to roll myself from this hammock, find that clock, and shove it down the throat of a flooded sewer.
Who dares to tell me what is real?