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Turtles and Toucans: An Eco-Exploration of Costa Rica

San José
Flying into San José, I looked out at the deep green hills as we emerged from the clouds and was struck by how much it reminded me of Guatemala—a good sign, since that was one of my two favorite trips ever.

San José is less congested and less polluted than Guatemala City and a lot smaller. Yet it's teeming with pedestrians (including some streets and plazas where cars can't go), street musicians, vendors of everything from umbrellas to ocarinas to cigars, and hawkers of vegetables and street food calling out their wares, loudly and continuously. The streets are lined with cafes (many offering Internet and/or cellular services), art galleries, bakeries, hardware and toy stores, restaurants…everything you'd expect to find in a metropolitan center. A fun, if noisy vibe. And despite the cigar hawkers, very few people smoking on the streets and many public places reserved for nonsmokers.

We're staying at an elegant hotel, the Santo Tomás, Avenida 7 between Calles 5 and 7. (Even numbered streets are on the opposite side of the main plaza). It's old, but it's been nicely refurbished in ways that accent the good parts about an old hotel. The staff is extremely helpful, the rooms are cool and quiet (and not moldy), and everything seems to be clean and in good condition (other than the pathetic excuse for a wi-fi signal that keeps going in and out). It's quite central but well insulated from the urban racket a few blocks away. Our room has one king bed; several of the others have two and are bigger than some apartments I had in my youth. There's a gym, a small but very spiffy looking pool—kidney-shaped and in an elegant tiled courtyard, a restaurant and bar.

Driving in San José is not for the timid; cars dart in and out of imaginary lanes, slam on their brakes at the last second, screech around corners amid the smell of burning clutch. Kind of like Mexico City, in other words—except it takes much less time to get across town. It's not a particularly pretty city, though it does have a number of architectural gems and some beautiful parks. The National Theater is a gorgeous palace with an ornate lobby. They wanted $7 to go into the theater proper, which seemed more than we would want to pay without getting a concert out of the deal.

Instead, we went around the corner to three museums that are kind of underneath the theater, covered by a common admission ticket (US $9) and administered by the country's central bank. Our favorite was the Precolombian Gold Museum, which had a few hundred exquisite gold and gold-copper alloy pieces, many of them finely detailed. It also made a real effort to put the work in a strong cultural context. I appreciated its careful differentiation among the many indigenous ethnic groups—and describing the trade patterns as far north as central Mexico and as far south as the Inca empire (in present-day Peru). Along with the gold, there were exhibits on village life, including lots of pottery, tools, some furniture, a full-size leaf-thatched hut where we could sit and feel tranquil, a small-scale diorama of a whole village, and an extended exhibit on burial customs.

The Numismatics Museum was also quite interesting, with exhibits on the making of coins and bills (and even a few postage stamps), the evolution of money from the Spanish real (during the late 18th century under Spanish rule, pronounced ray-al), to the peso (beginning in 1821, when Costa Rica was part of the newly independent Central American Federation and not yet its own republic), and eventually, in 1892, to the colon, introduced on the 400th anniversary of Columbus's (Colon in Spanish) first voyage of discovery. Oh yes, and some detours along the way like the period when metal was so scarce, cocoa beans were accepted as official currency.

During our visit, there was a wonderful exhibit about animal and plant images on paper money and coins.

Both of these museums translate nearly all their exhibit information into English.

The third museum was a small rotating exhibit of contemporary art, which took us under ten minutes to see. But we spent a couple of hours in the other two, and were glad we'd chosen them.

Also nearby is a jade museum, which we skipped, having been to several in Guatemala two years earlier.

Guanacaste Province
Playa de Coco/Playa Hermosa
We're spending a couple of days with a travel writer friend—a Costa Rica native who wrote a book about the Amazon—who lives with his girlfriend in a small village outside Liberia, a short drive inland from Coco, and he suggested that we meet at the beach. So bright and early the next morning, we boarded a Pulmatin bus all the way to Playa del Coco (Coconut Beach), on the Pacific Coast. The five-hour ride along the Pan American Highway took us through some spectacular altiplano scenery, deep green at this time of year, with many cultivated fields on the hillsides, but also many still forested. Sugar cane was the most common crop we saw, especially in the far western regions, though rice and corn are also grown in the area. And we noticed that what we'd heard about Costa Rica's national consciousness about litter is true; even in San José the streets are cleaner than in many American cities, and we saw none of the usual piles of trash that mar so many Latin American countrysides. The bus terminates directly at the beach, in a small and somewhat tired commercial center—but the beach itself is a lovely little harbor with small boats and an island perfectly placed to make great photos.

A short drive took us to Playa Hermosa (Beautiful Beach), with an equally nice view of the island and a public beach on its own road, with no commercial activity. Not that the town isn't developed; it's filled with resorts and huge second homes for Americans and Europeans. Yet this particular beach access point was half a mile away from all that, and felt luxuriously tranquil. And the water was amazingly warm on this somewhat cloudy day. A flock of huge black birds was circling at one end of the beach; their bat-wing silhouettes and pointy heads bore an amazing resemblance to prehistoric pterodactyls. Glenda said they were pelicans, but they were like no pelican I've seen before.

Glenda and Mynor live in a beautiful cottage on a spectacular farmette, growing mangos, bananas, corn, almonds, and various tropical fruit not familiar to me; their nearest primate neighbors are howler monkeys that live in some of the trees. We happened to be there on July 4th, and our fireworks show was courtesy of the most amazing fireflies I've ever seen. Not only were their lights much brighter and bigger than the ones we have at home, but they acted like stunt pilots, darting in and out like shooting stars, doing loop-the-loops, diving up and down—and of course no explosions and no gunpowder smell. We spent a very enjoyable evening talking about travel, writing, and religion, eating homegrown corn, listening to many types of birds and insects, and watching the show.

Rincon de la Vieja
Monday, Mynor drove us about half an hour to Rincon de la Vieja, one of Costa Rica's many volcano national parks. However, he forgot that all of Costa Rica's national parks are closed for maintenance on Mondays.

Fortunately, just outside the park gates, there's a privately owned resort complex that welcomes Monday visitors; not by coincidence, it's the busiest day of their week. Mynor left us off at the Hacienda Guachipelin, at the bottom of the complex, where we inquired about the possibilities and chose as our first destination a waterfall four kilometers farther up the hill. The information attendant was appalled that we planned to walk it and didn’t quite understand how we'd gotten there (the park is not really served by public transit, other than a very overpriced van from Liberia).

Perhaps she had something to do with the ride we were offered almost immediately by one of their drivers, who was taking two other people up to one of the thermal hot springs. It turned out to be very useful, because he first explained how to find the waterfall, and then gave us some safety warnings about being in the water. We still had to walk the last kilometer uphill and in intense humidity, and we were very grateful to have skipped about an hour of walking. When we got to the waterfall parking lot, luck was again with us, because two Americans were just getting into their car, and they showed us the trail head. A steep ten-minute walk later, we were taking off our shoes and fording the river (carefully, as the current was strong). We climbed a stairway on the other side and enjoyed a magnificent view of a powerful and completely vertical cataract several hundred feet high. And we had the place completely to ourselves. A quick dip in the chilly water, a picnic lunch, and back up to the trailhead.

A short distance down from the parking lot, we turned onto the spur road to the Simbiosis Volcanic Mud Springs and Spa, where for $20 each we got a sauna, a chance to paint ourselves with highly mineralized (and allegedly therapeutic) volcanic mud, natural thermal springs, and to finish off, a cold pool.

This was an excursion into Gringoville; all the signs were in English, the prices in dollars, the visitors entirely American or European. The manager seemed truly surprised and delighted that we could speak Spanish.

Still, even if our temporary companions were somewhat loud and boorish for our tastes (most were from New York City and its suburbs), it was undeniably a luxurious and relaxing way to spend a couple of hours. And then the manager arranged us a ride back to the hacienda, where we walked around the lovely grounds, whose environmentally sensitive landscaping may have been a matter of clearing away some native plants to let others be more noticeable. Certainly an effort was made to preserve the trees, including a Guanacaste tree that was probably close to 500 years old, and had the widest canopy I've ever seen, stretching hundreds of feet out from the massive trunk. It was at least 100 feet tall, but much, much wider than its height. This is now the resort's hotel, and it looked like a very enjoyable place to stay, if you didn’t mind the isolation. Most guests book one of the adventure packages (zipline canopy tours, rafting, and such) or else hang out at the spa and thermal springs, and probably don't leave the grounds. But for me, if I travel to another country, I want to feel that country and glimpse it through the eyes of those who live there.

We were told that this area had been only minimally developed before the Liberia international airport opened around 2001, but since then, much Norteño money has flowed in and tourism has become a powerful industry.

Costa Rica is also a leader in renewable energy, and this area is being developed for geothermal power. We passed two installations, one of them under construction and the other undergoing testing; that one created a massive plume of steam that we could see for our entire journey to the waterfall, and hear for much of it. In fact, we could see it from the bottom of the road, at the turnoff from the main highway, where Mynor and Glenda stopped for a photo break at a beautiful river canyon when they came back for us. All in all, a very pleasant day.

When we got home, the evening news featured an interview with Glenda (a defense lawyer) about the abuse by the police of her colleague who had been unjustly arrested. And while they were out at the farm, the TV crew did in-the-street interviews on the presence of US drug interdiction soldiers with Mynor, their housekeeper and gardener, which turned out to be the whole segment. So we actually saw interviews on Costa Rican TV with four people we knew.

Tuesday, Mynor offered us his car for the day. We debated various options before deciding we'd drive to the Nicaraguan border and walk across, take a bus to the first real town, visit Guanacaste National Park on the way to the border, and Puerto Soley beach on the way back. But there were a few unexpected twists and turns along the way.

First, the good road into the national park shown on our map turned out not to exist, and by then we were well past the turnoff in the other direction to Santa Rosa National Park—a road that did exist. OK, no problem, thought we; we'll hit Santa Rosa on the way back.

Two different people told us you could park just before the border at a pay lot (Mynor was one, and a Ministry of Interior official parked a mile from the border repeated it). But when we got there, a line of about 60 trucks completely blocked the right lane, the left lane was much shorter but not moving at all, and we couldn't even see the parking lot, much less get there. A bus pulled into the opposing lane and headed for the crossing; I followed it but was quickly honked back over to my side by a fast-moving bus that had come up right behind me.

At this point, it was 12:30 P.M., we suspected the customs officials were taking a lunch break, and we decided entering one more country wasn't going to be worth the hassle, the time, and the large helping of toxic diesel fumes we were inhaling. So I turned around.

Turning at the hamlet of La Cruz, home of the only gas station and supermarket between Liberia and the border (and the supermarket's restrooms were spotless), we headed out toward the beach. The scenery had been good all the way up the Pan American Highway from Cañas Dulces (the village where Mynor and Glenda live), and now it was spectacular, with beautiful green hills and the sparkling bay. Some time after the road turned to rough dirt, we passed a sign that said Puerto Soley, but there was nothing around it except a road going to the right. No arrow, but also no distance indicator—and no buildings. The next few towns on the sign all had a distance listed. Were we supposed to turn there? Two kilometers later, when we hit the desolate crossroads of Soley proper, we knew the answer and went back to the first junction. Turns out there is no village there, only a stunningly beautiful beach and it's a very short distance from the "main" road.

A few locals were fishing, swimming, or playing ball. We took a short swim and then walked along the gentle horseshoe curve to a sandbar, impressed by the view and by how warm and gentle the water was.

Canopy Tour
The majority of Americans we met on our entire trip were there for adrenaline: zipline canopy tours, whitewaer rafting, and such. On the way down, just as the paved road ended, we'd noticed a sign for Spider Monkey Canopy Tours, and we decided to check it out. Series of eleven cables, $30 US, and they took credit cards. This seemed a good deal less intimidating (and cheaper) for a first-timer than the 23-cable rig at Guachipelin. I decided to do it; Dina preferred to watch. I ended up being the only customer, and was harnessed up and taken by two guides, Alex and Lenin, who took turns being the first across and last across. The first two cables were mostly about getting the hang of it; after that, I could start to enjoy the treetops. Between needing to lose some weight and not wanting to get out of control, I kept the speed fairly slow (the weight was definitely a factor, as even when I wasn't using the brake, I would slow down a lot—twice, I didn't even make it all the way across before the glide stopped, and had to be towed in). So there wasn't nearly as much adrenaline rush as I thought there'd be. But it was fun and scenic and the guides were very nice, and now I can cross it off my lifetime list of adventures.

By this time, it was late enough in the day that going to the park made no sense; it would be dark within an hour. So we drove into Liberia and walked around a little, before returning to a delicious supper of home-grown squash and baby corn.

Monteverde/Santa Elena
Wednesday, Minor and Glenda drove us to Monteverde (helpful, since the public transit way would be three buses, the first one not departing until 3). The drive from Las Juntas to Monteverde was one of the most scenic roads I've ever been on, but also one of the worst maintained. A dirt track with numerous rockslides, mudslides, and washouts, and no indication that we'd made the right decision at the last crossroads. It looked like a road only burros would use, and we didn’t see another car. Fortunately, it hadn't rained in a while, and the road was (barely) passable in Mynor's 4-wheel drive car. We finally passed a farmer who assured us that yes, this was the way to Monteverde and we should turn right when we came to a church. We swung and shook and smashed into potholes and climbed the mountain, all while listening to the World Cup soccer semifinals between Spain and Germany. When we finally reached the summit and entered the clouds, we treated them to lunch while we all watched the game in a cafe. You wouldn't know from the final score—1-0 Spain—but Spain completely outplayed Germany. The ball was on the German side of the field far more often than on the Spanish, and only the amazing German goalie kept it from being a rout. The Spanish goalie was also quite good, but he had a whole lot less to do. It was a fun game, even for people who know as little about soccer as Dina and I do.

Once again, Dina's Internet research paid off, as we're staying in a lovely B&B, the Claro de Luna, just minutes from downtown. The ultrafriendly receptionist, Cristina, is also a skilled concierge who can arrange anything in town and wants to do whatever she can to make our stay wonderful.

Night Hike, with Tarantulas
Hiking through the rainforest at night in a rainstorm? Are we crazy? Not at all. We had good flashlights and a naturalist/guide, and it was magnificent.

In Santa Elena/Montverde, there are several "night walk" tours available. We asked Cristina which was the best, and she told us it depended on what we wanted: popular or quiet. We chose quiet, and we were the only customers walking with Greyving (our guide) through the former Finca San Francisco de Assisi (Saint Francis of Assisi Farm). Arriving just before dark, we were awestruck by the majesty of the tall trees shrouded in mist, the sounds of the many species of insects, the thickness of the understory.

Dozens of mammal, snake, and bird species live in this reclaimed forest, now conservation land: sloths, agoutis, quetzals, porcupines, and monkeys, to name a few. But Greyving warned us that we weren't likely to see many animals in the rain, and in fact we saw nothing with four legs. But we saw plenty of insects and spiders, including walking sticks, moths, crickets, grasshoppers—and two tarantulas. He was able to coax one of them—an orange-kneed tarantula about six inches in diameter, which he said was a very common type—out of its hole, and it came within a foot of us. I grabbed for my camera but she skittered off. The other one was busy eating, and couldn't be prodded out of its tree trunk no matter what. But it's quite something to peer into a hollow log and see these deep eyes staring at you from a twisted collection of black hairy legs.

This was a female, he said. Females live about ten years and spend their whole lives inside one place, in this case a hollow log. Males spend their days walking around the forest, and as a result—as a tasty snack for many of the four-legged creatures here, and also at risk of being killed and eaten by the female following impregnation—live only a couple of months.

We passed an enormous strangler fig that he estimated at 200 years old. And, he says, in the nearby parks there are some specimens five times as large and four times as old.

In all, it was a fascinating hour and a half.

Santa Elena
This town, Santa Elena, feels like something between San Pedro and Panajacheél, Guatemala (neighboring communities on Lake Atitlán): a very well-developed tourist infrastructure, an aware and somewhat countercultural tourist base, a lot of Europeans along with the North Americans—and a small-town feel where everything is close by and you start to see the same people on the streets over and over. There was even one travel bureau with hand-written signs in Hebrew—though unlike Atitlán, I haven't actually encountered any Israelis. One big difference, though, is that the crafts in Atitlán are among the best I've ever seen (particularly in the huge market at Santiago), while the crafts in Santa Elena are extremely unexciting. Other than a few nice jewelry pieces, I've seen nothing that held my interest. Also, prices in general are much higher here. I had to go shopping for a new rain poncho or raincoat today, and the choices were sparse and very overpriced even by U.S. standards.

We did find a bargain in restaurants yesterday, but today (Thursday) our choice felt like a lot of money for what we got, as did the Ranario, billed as an exotic frog pond. Actually, the frogs and toads were all in terrariums. A guide walked us around and shone flashlights on the sleeping frogs so we could take pictures, but we had expected a more naturalistic experience. This hadn't even been on our agenda, but one of the people on our van back from the park said it was a highlight for her. Not particularly for us, however.

What we did and liked today was a three-hour walk through the Santa Elena Park cloud forest, with giant trees, sounds of monkeys, birds and insects, a good view of a giant Black Guan (a very large bird), a few smaller birds, and lots of amazing plants. Also lots of rain starting halfway around, and that's when my old poncho started leaking. A lot.

Skywalk
In the morning, we decided on the spur of the moment to do one of the Hanging Bridges skywalks. With Cristina's guidance, we chose Aventura, and half an hour later, the van was picking us up for a 20-minute drive to nowhereville.

At this facility, you walk with a naturalist. Looking at the mostly native-speaker appearance for those choosing Spanish, we at first lined up on the English side. But then the two groups were wildly uneven, and the guides asked if anyone would switch. We and another family volunteered if the guide was wiling to speak slowly. He said that not only would he do so, but he'd translate anything where we got stuck. It turned out we were able to understand about 80 percent of what he said, and only asked for translations about three times in a two-hour walk.

I had not expected much, but this was a highlight. We got to see the canopy up close and personal, and at leisure—a much better view than I'd gotten from the canopy. The naturalist pointed out a great deal that we'd have missed on our own, including a sloth hanging upside down at 100 feet or so off the ground, a family of small owls, and another family of agoutis (a large and fast-moving rodent). He also told us that the pervasive and strong-smelling flower we've been seeing is ginger. I would strongly recommend this tour.

Arenal and La Fortuna
The afternoon was a three-hour journey to Arenal. As the crow flies, it's all of 22 kilometers (14 miles)—but because of the steep drop in elevation, driving would be 106 kilometers. The clever travel operators have worked out a better way: a van or jeep across the rough roads (not nearly as rough, however, as the road we took into Monteverde) to Lake Arenal, a lovely and romantic boat ride across the lake—and in our direction, spectacular views of Arenal Volcano the entire way; we even got to see a steam plume from an eruption—and then a 20-minute van ride on a paved and well-maintained road.

Oddly, though, in Costa Rica there's not much cooperation among the numerous travel and outfitter companies. So there are a lot of vans and boats running around with just a couple of passengers, even though gas is over $4 per gallon and wages are not high (though this country is clearly more prosperous than anywhere else we've been in Latin America).

La Fortuna exists pretty much entirely to serve the enormous numbers of travelers coming to see Arenal. This sprawling village is overwhelmed by tour/activity operators, restaurants, hotels, resorts, thermal springs, outfitters, and such. It's not a pretty town, but you can stand at the beautiful park in the town square, look across to the church, and see Arenal rising directly behind.

It was after 5:30 when we arrived. The first thing we did was ask our hotel receptionist how to get to see the volcano at night. She told us we could take a taxi for $40 or $50. Umm no, I think there must be a better way. So after a quick dinner on the snacks we're carrying, we started walking around checking out tour agencies.

The first one we talked to was a sleazy high-pressure operator, who told us why we should use him instead of the $10 tour operators; his price was $30 to see the volcano and $30 more if we wanted to stop at one of the hot springs. A rafting trip the following day would be $45. Oh, thought we, there are $10 tour operators? Lets go find them!

Sure enough, at 6:30, we found Los Sueños, a tour operator across from the park, offering a 7 p.m. drive to a volcano overlook, plus a dip in the hot springs, for $10, and we liked the guy. And fortunately, our hotel (the San Bosco, which looks like motel in Florida), was only two blocks away. We rushed back to change our clothes and gather our bathing suits, and 35 minutes later, the van pulled up. By 7:55, after stopping several other places to pick up passengers and then driving about 30 minutes, we were at the lookout.

The tour drivers all have their favorite lookouts. A lot of them use a certain bridge, where perhaps a dozen vans were parked. We went farther up the road, where there was only one other vanload of passengers. It was alternately cloudy and clear, and when the clouds were gone, the stars were utterly magnificent. Almost immediately, we saw a fairly big eruption, then nothing for quite a while, then a bunch of tiny eruptions over perhaps 20 minutes, and finally, streams of lava from the top to the bottom, in lightning forks all the way across the mountain, just as in the pictures. This took some patience; we were watching for over an hour. Arenal can reliably be counted on to erupt, but the eruptions themselves are very short: sometimes just a second or two, at least from our distant vantage point. Still, quite dramatic, especially when lava flares into the sky.

The hotspring on the way back was a freebie local spot across from one of the entrances to Tabacón Hot Springs (I think the one closer to town, but not sure). We took a flashlight walk down to the water, took off our outer clothes and left them on a rock, and then walked across a concrete platform covered with a few inches of fast-moving hot water ending at a short cascade, maybe 18 inches high. Mario, our driver, told me to sit down at the edge of the waterfall (I happened to be first to get across) and then he pushed me in. I would have appreciated knowing I'd be sucked completely under the water, but I bobbed right up again. And we hung out there for a delicious 20 minutes, emerging feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, and with our skin amazingly soft.

In the morning, we went back to the place where we'd bought the night lava tour to see what we could work out for the day—but the guy we'd liked wasn't working, and the morning salesperson left us with a bad taste. So we went a few doors up the street to Jacamar, where an extremely gracious and helpful agent named Raquel gave us lots of options. She must have spent 20 or 30 minutes with us, was totally willing to put up with our Spanish (something a bit rarer here than other places we've been, in Costa Rica or in Latin America as a whole) and wasn't at all perturbed that we went away for an hour to figure out our choice.

First we narrowed it down to another volcano hike (this time in the National Park) or a quietwater rafting "safari" (that's the term all over Costa Rica for non-adrenaline rafting). The price was comparable, and while $49 felt like a lot to go hiking, $50 seemed quite reasonable to spend a couple of hours in the river with a naturalist and then get a snack at a local farm. So back we went to Jacamar and booked the tour.

The tour didn't leave until 1, so we had a few hours to explore the town. Arenal has the best souvenirs of anyplace we've been in Costa Rica: Boruca (also called Brunca) festival masks, artisanal woodwork (salad bowls, cutting boards, tchotchkes), pottery, both cheap and high-end jewelry, and an assorted of works by painters from around the country. Quality and prices vary widely. For textiles, though, the best we saw were Guatemalan, at a Guatemalan-owned store.

One store that especially impressed us was La Casa de la Cerámica, just past the main church on the street that runs to its right (the business card doesn't give an address, which is common here; it says "25 meters north of the Catholic church). This family-owned concern features the work of three painters in the family, working both in canvas and on ceramic tile, and baking the tiles on premises. Motifs include Costa Rican wildlife (especially toucans and parrots), the Arenal volcano, and local village scenes. The father stopped us as we were browsing and asked if we spoke Spanish, and when we replied affirmatively, he personally showed us around, including the painting studio and the tile production room. His son Alex Jara and Alex's wife Cindy Parra also paint. We met Alex but not Cindy, though we bought one of her tiles.

On the main shopping street, we particularly liked the selection, friendly attitude, and prices of Sharon Souvenirs, also north of the park but a block over to the right as you face the church (on the same street as Jacamar).

The Raft
Once again, we were the only customers and got a private tour, which meant that once again, we could get the naturalist stuff in Spanish. We drove south for about 20 minutes through an agricultural area: papayas, bananas, yucca, corn, other fruit trees, and occasional ground crops.

Then Bernardo and his driver got the raft into the Peñas Blancas (White Rocks) river and handed us water bottles and life jackets. Before we were even settled in the boat, we saw the first of several bare-throated tiger herons. Cruising down the river at slow speed, we also saw a whole family of active howler monkeys swinging from trees, several Jesus Christ lizards (so called because they appear to walk on water) of the green variety and one of the yellow, numerous flycatchers, kingfishers and smaller birds, a tree full of vultures, a very large iguana sunbathing near the top of a tree, assorted tanagers, warblers, and wrens, a family of five tiny bats sleeping on a tree, and a wide range of beautiful trees: yellow and green bamboo, giant figs (not the strangler kind), ceiba, mimosa, and many others that even Bernardo didn't know.

It was beautiful, with the light dancing on the water, tons of birds going by, and the amazingly quiet absence of evidence of human activity, other than one denuded area of the bank (Bernardo said it was a cattle farm) and the very occasional radio or motorcycle audible but not visible on shore. But the river looked as probably it did hundreds of years ago. And it was quite a bit of animal life in a short time. Once again, highly recommended.

Raquel had told us we might want insect repellent and of course, rain gear. And she warned us that we might get wet and should wear sandals. However, none of this turned out to be necessary this particular day. The weather was beautiful most of the day, and although the sky got progressively darker, it never rained on us. Not a drop of water entered the boat, even during the mini-rapids we occasionally encountered (typically due to pressure buildup around a fallen log).

On the way back, we stopped at a local farm, where we were treated to delicious platanos (made ahead but still served warm, and much less oily than typical), homemade and tamarind naturales: blender drinks with water—or occasionally milk—and tropical fruit; I've been enjoying several different flavors on the trip, including mango, pineapple, linaza (linseed or flax, with a sweet, melonish flavor and a viscous texture), guava, guayanaba, and one other, much stronger, tamarind. Tamarind, I found out from Bernardo, is actually in the mimosa family (mimosa is one of the two trees common at home that I've also found here; the other is locust).

La Fortuna, Saturday Night
Since we were out on the volcano tour our first night (Friday), we hadn't seen the night scene. On a Saturday evening, the streets are crowded with packs of tourists, apparently going partying. There are too many restaurants to support the number of people eating, at least tonight; many were quite empty. But there's none of the pressure in some other tourist towns, including Miami Beach. Nobody hucksters you here, though if you show interest, you'll certainly get attention. The choices are not overly exciting, however. We chose our restaurant, El Jardin, because it had an actual vegetarian section of the menu, with several dishes. Unfortunately, neither of the dishes we ordered was very good. I had a stuffed zucchini, which was big and tough, and Dina ordered something billed as an eggplant lasagna, which was actually an eggplant cut in threes and covered with the same cheese and vegetable mixture I had—no noodles. The cheese at least was good; the eggplant was wildly undercooked and not of high quality, and ditto for the veggies in the sauce. No bread or chips were served. We had to cut rotten spots off our avocado garnishes, too.

Our final stop was an ATM machine, where we discovered that in Costa Rica, where people laugh a lot and make more jokes than anywhere else I've ever been, even the ATM has a sense of humor: we took our money and then the screen showed this message in English: "you have taken too long, so the ATM is keeping your money." This seems actually quite typical of Costa Rican humor, which often looks at the worst thing that could happen. For instance, when we asked Mynor—who made so many jokes that I dubbed him "El Bromador" (The Joker)—about the mosquito situation, he said, "Don't worry, we only have the kind that has malaria or dengue."

Tortuguero National Park
Getting from La Fortuna to Tortuguero took eight hours, of which about five were actual travel time—and three vehicles. First, a van 2-1/2 hours to the tour company's facility in Siquerros (Squirrels), where we had a buffet breakfast, and discovered that none of the 100 or so people there were going to Tortuguero; they were all going whitewater rafting.

We also discovered that we were expected to leave our suitcases in a storage locker and just bring day packs, which absolutely could have been mentioned ahead of time, and we would have packed differently (and which seems completely unnecessary, especially since when we arrived, we saw plenty of suitcases belonging to people who had booked with a different company, and since none of the three vehicles were crowded). So in about five minutes, we had to grab what we thought we might need. Sure enough, I discovered that I hadn't grabbed a shirt, and the one I was wearing died suddenly (the fourth clothing casualty I've had this trip), so I ended up having to buy two tourist t-shirts later at the boat dock.

Oddly enough, even though we were the only two going, we ended up in a very large bus. Although it was only about 33 kilometers, this second ride was about an hour and a half, most of it over gravel. The road actually wasn't too bad, but our driver took it slowly, which was just fine. We passed through a depressing Del Monte banana hacienda: some thousands of acres where the native forests had been cut down and replaced with monoculture. While the banana trees are tall and beautiful, and there are plenty of them growing in the rainforest parks, this kind of planting seemed like an assault on the forest. Later, I found out that these growers have significant negative impact and use a tremendous amount of pesticides; why wasn't I surprised?

The best part of that leg was a stop at Tropical Gardens nature preserve, where Victor, the owner gave us—and the two much more crowded vans that had also stopped—a tour of his many types of elacoña—similar looking to bananas but a different family—numerous other flowers, frog and butterfly habitat (screened off areas of the natural forest, instead of the horrible terrariums we'd seen in Santa Elena, a fruit tree with a really powerful and terrible smell (if skunk were a tropical fruit, it would be this one), and one lone cacao tree. He told us he grew everything organically and that he was not happy being neighbors with the agribusiness banana farms (and we translated for everyone else).

From, there, it was only a short stop to the bus station/boat dock for the final leg down the river. There were about a dozen buses and vans, and several boats, some of them quite crowded. And a large combination outfitter/souvenir shop/snack bar, which was doing a brisk business in cold drinks, in the hottest weather we've experienced here. Judging by how few people are staying here in the park lodges, I'm guessing the vast majority of these people were going to take a quick foray into the park for a couple of hours and then get back on their bus.

We, on the other hand, went down the river for more than an hour, most of it at a pretty brisk pace, with occasional wildlife stops including a river turtle and our first crocodile, both sunbathing a few feet away from each other. We also saw an iguana, some falcons and hawks, and a beautiful red and black woodpecker or taniger.

The park lodges are rustic but beautiful cabins, with electricity and (very) hot water, a pool, and a restaurant—but not an ATM or a store.

After lunch and a swim, Laura, our guide, took us to the town of Tortuguero, a five-minute boat ride from the lodge. This is where the green turtles nest along the Caribbean beach, using flippers to dig holes about five feet across, where the sand meets the vegetation—a real one to lay the eggs, up to 100 at a time, three times during the summer, all on the same beach where she was born, and then a fake one to attract predators away from the eggs (but these are right next to each other). The eggs mature for about 55 days, and then all the turtles hatch out together and leave. They go immediately to the sea, and stay there for 35 to 50 years, until it's time for them to mate and for the next batch of females to return. Lifespan is about 150 years—but the eggs, hatchlings, and adults all have many predators, and only about one in 1000 survive to adulthood. They are herbivores, and they are not green in color, but their fat is; these are the turtles that were hunted close to extinction to make turtle soup for European gourmets, but since 1970 when the park was established, they've been protected here.

Walking down the main street of Tortuguero, we felt like we'd crossed a border and teleported into a Spanish-speaking version of Jamaica. The architecture, the souvenirs, and the skin tones of the local population all felt much more Caribbean than Central American, right down to the dredlocked young man who tried to sell us fresh cold water coconuts.

And right now, back at the lodge, I'm listening to loud soca music at the bar, which is the only place there's an Internet connection. But on the way here from my cabin, perhaps 200 meters, I got to hear a symphony of maybe eight different frog mating calls, and got to see one of them resting on a palm tree. I couldn't see its color in the dark, but the person with the flashlight, who works here, said it was a blue one.

The Turtle Walk (By D. Dina Friedman; Shel was too exhausted to go)
I was surprised that I was the only one in the lodge who appeared to be going on the night turtle walk. I was the only person in the boat (other than Julio, the driver) as we set out, Julio driving with one hand while holding a flashlight out the window in the other, the only light on the dark, murky water. We soon stopped, however, and picked up six men (ages around 40-60) from Spain, along with their guide, another older man—then continued on another 10 minutes through the channels, to the runway of the tiny Tortugero airport. There we left the boat, walking via the lone beam of a flashlight onto the runway, where several other groups were standing around. We could hear the waves crashing onto the beach, just a few yards beyond. Stars were out, but in the distance flashes of lightning occasionally lit up the sky.

The guide explained that we were one of five groups on the beach, group 3 to be exact, and that we would be called when turtles were spotted. Only two groups were allowed to view the turtle at a time, so we had to wait. He also explained that while on the beach, he could only use the red beam of his flashlight, and only on the rear of the turtle, as to not disturb her. He then asked if we had any questions, and the group started arguing with him about what time they needed to leave in the morning (6 was too early, so they decided on 7). Then, to kill time, he proceeded to give an overview of the life and egg-laying habits of the turtle, all things Laura had explained earlier in the day, which was helpful because his explanation was in Spanish, and I wouldn't have gotten as much as I had if I hadn't already heard it. Then men asked a bunch of questions, but they were beginning to get bored, and they asked if there was a place to sit down. One man wasn't feeling well so the boat driver had to take him back to the hotel. We then sat and waited on a little bench outside the only airport building, a little shack, and the men smoked and chatted while I continued listening to the waves on the beach and looking at the stars and the lightning. It felt very cool to be out there at night, even though we were waiting a long time. I was beginning to think that we probably wouldn't see a turtle, but that it would still be okay, because I was enjoying the whole ambiance of the experience, when the guide suddenly said "vamos!"

We followed the beam of the flashlight single file, past the runway and onto the beach where we had to walk carefully because there was a lot of driftwood. Then the guide told us to wait, that the turtle was cleaning her nest and after she was done, we could watch her go back into the ocean. I was wondering how anyone could even see the turtle, because it was completely dark. I squinted, trying to see what might be a turtle among the shadows. When I finally something beginning to move around the logs, I was amazed at how big it was—I expected something half the size. We crept closer, waited. When the turtle started moving toward us, a murky shadow in the sand, the guide told us to stay back, to give it distance. We played this little cat/mouse game for a while, as the turtle circled around, then finally, it began to creep towards the ocean, very slowly, and we all followed behind. When it got to the edge, it seemed to wait, letting the ocean lap it up, before the water became deep enough for it to swim away.

I thought that would be it, as we walked back on the beach, then toward the runway, but the guide motioned us to turn and we followed a pathway along the beach for several more yards, until we came to another part of the beach. Here I immediately noticed a group of people standing around, and two people standing in a hole, shining a red light. When it was our turn, the guide actually held the turtle's huge flipper aside, and shone his light deep into a hole in the sand, where I could see around five soft eggs—they looked like slightly larger hard-boiled chicken eggs. We waited there until we saw several more eggs drop into the hole, and then quietly crept away so that the next group could get a viewing.

While watching the eggs was certainly thrilling, I think the most fascinating part was watching the turtle in the dim light making her way toward the sea, a ritual that seemed both prehistoric and timeless. Laura had explained that the turtles, like the salmon, always come back to the spot they were born to lay their eggs, even though they immediately run into the sea, migrate thousands of miles, and don't return until 30-50 years later. I was impressed by the size of the turtle, and the grace in which she moved, despite her size, and the deep ingrained instinct that left her oblivious to all the people watching.

Final Activities (Shel writing again)
Our last morning in Tortuguero, Laura narrated us through a boat trip down the canals. Although man-made, these narrower channels actually have a wilder look, with rainforest trees crouching out over the water in a more primitive and intimate way than on the other rivers we'd been on. Plenty of wildlife here too, of course, including many gorgeous birds as well as the brightest and biggest blue morpho butterflies I've seen anywhere, even in other parts of Costa Rica. (The butterfly population of Costa Rica, like the birds, is an incredible richness of biodiversity; we'd probably seen at least fifty species in the wild before we even left Liberia, and many more after that.)

And then, back at the lodge for breakfast, we finally saw toucans; one flew into the restaurant and the staff caught it in a napkin; I grabbed a picture as they released it outside and it flew up a tree to greet its mate. I was surprised at how small it is; other than the beak, it was about the size of a blue jay. In this land of huge birds, size is not why people pay attention to the toucan.

Warning us to put on all the mosquito protection we had (including our head nets, unused to this point), Laura then led us on a short hike. We borrowed mud boots and slogged along the trail. Twice, my foot got stuck and I had to force it up. We saw more birds, insects, and spiders, and it was fun to be out walking. My pants were covered in mud by the time we returned.

And then, instead of the slow, quiet wildlife cruise, it was back in the boat with the engine roaring back up the river, on the hour-and-a half first leg of our three-day journey back home. It took from 10 a.m. to about 6:30 p.m. to get to our hotel in Alajuela, involving one boat, three tourist vans, and a taxi. Coming back from the largely preserved areas, I could see much more easily the influences of humans: places where the forests had been cut down and replaced with grazing land, or with monocrop agriculture.

The road to San José (a well-maintained 2- to 3-lane highway, but very curvy and hilly) goes through some gorgeous mountains as well as another loud forest. And amazingly, it's still quite rural until only about six kilometers outside the city limits. We did have to deal with San José rush hour, which was not hugely congested this particular day, but the pollution factor was quite high; my eyes immediately started watering and my throat got irritated.

By the time we finally got to our hotel, Alajuela's whole sprawling downtown was shutting down for the night. This city is very much oriented to the locals, even though it houses the airport. Most retail businesses seem to sell clothing and household goods, no streets that we waked on were named, and we heard no English in our walk. We both wanted to find a nice restaurant for our last meal in Costa Rica, but in walking around ten blocks or so, all we found were divey family-style restaurants (and not many of them) and two clean and inviting looking Chinese restaurants that could both enter a contest for Worst Menu Offerings: lots of chop suey, nothing for vegetarians, and nothing much I'd want to eat even if I did eat meat. So we gave up and stopped at a bakery, where we picked up a loaf of braided cinnamon bread that was absolutely delicious—and still terrific the next morning, when we finished it at the airport.

Shel Horowitz is Editor of Global Travel Review. His most recent book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World. D. Dina Friedman is the award-winning author of Escaping Into the Night and Playing Dad's Song. Her website is www.ddinafriedman.com.


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