An Eco-Adventure in the Costa Rica Rainforest
The Costa Rica rainforest was the second half of an adventurous two-country wander in celebration of my 15th wedding anniversary. As we traveled to the third place recommended by 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, I wondered—would Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula be able to live up to our unforgettable experience in the Belize Rainforest and Ambergris Caye?
Costa Rica 101
Costa Rica, aptly named “Rich Coast” by the Spaniards, is located south of Nicaragua and northwest of Panama with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other.
The Spanish took over in the 16th century and the natives never fought to gain the independence, but rode the freedom wave along with the rest of Central America in 1821. Costa Rica is the only Latin American country to have been a functioning democracy before 1950, and it permanently abolished its military in 1949.
Home to the largest primary forest on the Pacific coast and one of only a few significant lowland rain forests on the planet, the country places preserving the environment at the top of its priority list. Human rights are taken just as serious, which explains the country’s consistently high scores in world rankings of both happiness and sustainability. Even the animals breathe easier here since deforestation was almost entirely eradicated by 2005, and recreational hunting was banned in 2012.
One doesn’t think of Costa Rica without coffee coming to mind. From the early 19th century until well into the 20th, coffee was the country’s primary source of revenue. Today, bananas and tourists pose some stiff competition.
There are two indigenous tribes that managed to survive the Spanish takeover. The feisty Bribri and Boruca tribes can still be found down south near the Panamanian border. The matrilineal Bribri live and farm in clans on reservations in the mountains and along the Caribbean coast. Cacao is central to their culture and is used in ceremonies and sold to outsiders. The Boruca support themselves with small-scale agriculture and selling art and handiwork to tourists. Their specialty is a colorful mask worn during Juego de los Diablitos (“The Dance of the Little Devils”), a three-day New Year’s festival beginning on December 31. The masks are used to reenact their attempts to scare off the invading devilish Spanish by posing as fierce animals.
Costa Rica has two seasons—wet (May to November) and dry (December to April). Here, wet is really wet. In some regions, such as the Central Cordillera Mountains where the average rainfall is 197 inches, the rain never stops. The good news is that it usually stays warm when it rains. The average year-round temp is 80º F.
Lapa Rios Ecolodge
Because I’m a “see more of less” kind of wanderer, our plan was to see a lot of the Costa Rica rainforest on the Osa Peninsula. There’s nothing “less” about it.
Located in the Puntarenas district, this region is home to more than half of all the species living in a country that has the highest density of species in the world and 5% of the world’s biodiversity. The highlight of the area is 263 square mile Corcovado National Park — home to big cats, tapirs, sloths, scarlet macaws, and all four Costa Rican monkey species (the white-headed capuchin, the mantled howler, the endangered Geoffroy’s spider monkey, and the Central American squirrel monkey). I was just a teensy bit excited.
It seems in addition to acclimating to the the rain forest, I was also acclimating to mini airplanes. On this third hopper flight – from San Jose International Airport to Puerto Jiminez — I managed to speak and appreciate the delicious scenery beneath me. Farms, mountains, rainforest, and coastline…all blanketed with clouds that were so distinctly formed that you would swear they were painted in oils. We were bound for Lapa Rios, a sustainable eco-lodge set in a 1,000 acre rainforest preserve overlooking the Golfo Dulce.
“Hola! I’m here to take you to Lapa Rios!,” shouted a greeter the second my foot hit the first metal step outside the plane. (For the second time on this trip, I’m somewhat surprised to be greeted seemingly in the middle of nowhere by someone anticipating our arrival.)
I’d been warned that the Costa Rica rainforest was hotter than Belize. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the education in sweat I got the instant I stepped off the plane. Everyone here has a sheen from a blend of sweat, sunscreen, and bug repellent.
Our first 45 minutes were a hands-on education on the infamous Costa Rican roads. The rumors were true. They separate tourists from travelers. Our driver gleefully sped over craters and boulders and seemed to play with the oncoming motorcycles, ATVs, 4x4s and Mack trucks. The tourist in me clenched the seat as I imagined our overturned Jeep overturned on the side of the road. The traveler relished the exhilarating experience in an exotic place…every cell in my body alive and buzzing with adrenaline. I believe it was at this moment that my inner tourist permanently departed.
Oh, Lapa Rios…I thought you’d be nothing more than a rebound relationship. A quick substitute for Belize. Who would have thought that I’d be so lucky to fall deeply in love twice within days??? You pulled me in with your 16 cabanas, lush grounds, and knockout lodge. And, you kept on enticing me with your carved wooden spiral staircase leading to a rooftop deck surrounded by ocean and forest and your fully stocked bar. I was a goner when I walked into our cabana. Only one solid wall with mere screens separating me from the rainforest. Even in the shower where you gifted me a chestnut mandible toucan and a fiery billed aracari and taught me to always have my camera within arm’s reach. And, the bed…ensconced in all that sexy mosquito netting. Okay, you also taught me that it actually serves a purpose. So, you’re not perfect…only a single hammock on our deck. But, oh what a deck…overlooking the white-capped Pacific Ocean.
The next morning I was flabbergasted. So many welts…and, in the most private of places. So many questions raced through my head. Did 10 bloodsuckers meet behind my right knee for a single suck? Or, was it a solitary glutton on a 10-suck binge? Why did my underwear not serve the same function as the mosquito net? Would I be starring in the next episode of “Monsters Inside Me?” It’s entirely possible that my husband has repellent flowing through his veins.
I am impelled to dedicate an entire paragraph to one of the most talented members of the staff. Thanks to Lapa Rios’ brilliant bartender, we had another goal for our rainforest excursion: to consume every luscious concoction on the resort’s bar menu. It’s a bit scary how quickly we reached this lofty goal. We earned ourselves a reputation, but it’s not like we’re going to see any of these folks again. We bonded with the Guaro Sour (a light & refreshing drink made from sugar cane liqueur, fresh lime, and a dash of sugar), the Mamalapa (a frothy blend of fresh pineapple juice, cream of coconut, vodka, and sparkling water], and the Tropical Margarita [the grand prize winner with layers of blended fresh mango and blackberries). The world loves an artisan, especially one making the world more jubilant, one guest at a time.
The rest of the staff, which is primarily comprised of members of the local community, are über-friendly and eager to meet even your unanticipated needs. In exchange, all they ask for is an opportunity to practice their English and learn invaluable skills that will (hopefully) steer them in the opposite direction of poverty. The owner educates them on preserving local resources and treasures through sustainable hospitality practices. One such effort was Mission Kinkajou. The kinkajou is a nocturnal tree dweller, similar to a monkey. Although categorized as a carnivore, it primarily eats fruits, vegetation, and bugs. However, local legend has it descending from trees at night to relieve the natives of their blood, hence making it a target for instant death and a candidate for wallets, saddles, and dinner.
One could stick to the paved walkways and still see exotic wildlife here…although that would be a colossal mistake. While heading toward the bar shortly after we arrived, we strolled past three coatimundis (a Costa Rican raccoon), an agouti, a flock of scarlet macaws, and several baby iguanas. On our first two guided treks, we saw three species of monkeys (howler, spider and white-faced), a three-toed sloth, and countless frogs and insects. (I am making excellent use of the rainforest senses I honed last week in the Belize rainforest.)
One day, while seeking out some solitary relaxation in a secluded spot overlooking the coast, more scarlet macaws squawked loudly as they flew overhead, one more coatamundi poked around for snacks to my left, and another agouti scuffled under my feet. I chuckled…apparently my husband went to the only place in the resort where you could fully relax: the massage table in the resort spa. It was apparent on our first night that nighttime wasn’t much more conducive to relaxation. The forest comes alive and doesn’t snooze until the wee hours of the morning.
Well, it was bound to happen…it rained on us in the rainforest. Oh, wait…did I say “rained?” I mean dumped. It drowned us less than halfway through our four-hour hike. Not having gotten very wet in Belize, we naively left our Columbia rainforest-approved jackets [purchased for just such an occasion] back in our hut. Within minutes, the trail turned into a slippery fast-moving stream of mud. On the positive side, it was warm, the rain took out the mosquitoes that had been plaguing us for the last kilometer, and the frogs of every color emerged from their secret hiding spots.
As we started heading back toward the lodge, I struck up a conversation with the guy behind me. What a surprise to find out he was from San Diego! Crazy to find out that he worked in the same industry as my husband. Downright bizarre when he says he knows a guy who does exactly what my husband does and asks if I’ve ever heard of…my husband! We’re in the middle of a bloody rainforest at the southernmost tip of Costa Rica and I have to listen to business speak for the next 30 minutes. (And, so much for being incognito in the bar.)
Once I met Nito, THE Nature Guide, I was hooked. His passion was infectious and his uncanny intuition was nothing short of amazing. As we walked, he would stop, take two steps, and open the rolled up leaves of gargantuan houseplants to reveal tiny suction cup bats nursing their babies or bright green tree frogs waiting patiently for their next meal. A few more steps and he would cock his head, be still, listen intently, then dash into the trees and return with a poison dart frog. He was madly in love with Costa Rica and brimming with gratitude that this was his native land. I was smitten and fell in love underneath a waterfall.
After catching the rainforest version of the evening news (nine howler monkeys munching on leaves in the trees outside our room), we spent the evening in the bar sipping on Mojito Ticos (a Guaro sour with freshly ground mint leaves) and watching a local troupe perform traditional Costa Rican dances. Every day we’ve been exposed to different bits of Costa Rican culture without ever having to leave the grounds (and drive on those roads).
Tomorrow we leave Lapa Rios…the comfort, the electricity, the bartender…and head further south to the rustic (and final) leg of our Costa Rican adventure at Corcovado Tent Camp.
Corcovado Tent Camp
We were met in the Lapa Rios lobby on the morning of our departure by Orlando, the taxi driver who would have our lives in his hands for the short distance to Carate. Were the roads paved, it would have been a 15 minute trip at best, but it wasn’t until more than an hour later that we were met on the beach by an elderly Costa Rican gentleman wearing a floppy straw hat and black rubber boots. He was our bellman.
After loading up our luggage (once again…thank God we packed light) on a mini wooden horse-drawn wagon, he beckoned to us to follow him to our home for the next several days—Corcovado Tent Camp.
The reservations agent had forewarned us for this 30-minute walk to the camp, but nothing could prepare us for the stunning beauty. Black sand underfoot, waves crashing on our left, lush rainforest on our right, and a rainbow of macaws over our heads or squawking in nearby trees (we counted 11 in one tree alone). With legs dangling, our guide lovingly patted his horse while the wagon slowly cut through the sand. Yep, we’re in Paradise.
The camp is a collection of blue and white raised screened tents separated from the ocean by only a small patch of soft grass, at least one baby boa constrictor, several palm trees [with hammocks!], and a white sand beach. A bed and nightstand consumed the interior. The collection of candles on the table was the only light source available to us once the sun set [at about 6 p.m.]. The bathrooms and dining area are both communal, nature calling you to the former and a conch shell to the latter. Dining family-style with the other guests is one of the daily highlights and an opportunity to connect with fellow off-the-beaten path travelers. Although our hearts belonged to the Lapa Rios bartender, we noted the camp bar in a separate wall-less structure with hammocks and a lookout deck. Not surprising that Fodor’s ranked it in their top 20 of 30,000 worldwide destinations and it was one of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Okay, maybe “rustic” isn’t quite the right word to describe this place.
It rains almost every day now thanks to the early arrival of the wet season, which will last through early December. The only effect this has upon us is that for part of the day we’re soaking wet instead of merely damp and sticky. The temperature keeps us in tank tops and shorts.
Throughout our time in the Belize rainforest and here, we’ve met several enthusiastic members of an interesting human subculture known as “Birders.” We got to chat with the most avid – and hysterically funny – ones at the communal dining table one night. A retired college science professor and his wife have trekked around the world for the past 40 years creating a lengthy master list of sightings. They are setting out tomorrow with an experienced local guide to find four birds missing from their list. If they spotted just one of these four, their mission to the Osa Peninsula would be deemed wildly successful. Much to the guide’s dismay, all four of these birds were “LBBs” (“little brown birds”) that are near impossible to find in a dense rainforest. Our guide was thrilled as we became wildly excited when spotting an “IMB” (“impossible-to-miss bird)…like those aforementioned scarlet macaws.
Our days here are a spent hyper-relaxing during the heavy morning rains and leisurely exploring after lunch. Although quite thrilling to be 100′ off the ground, our tree platform excursion was a creature flop. However, a guided trek into Corcovado National Park earned us some more howler and spider monkeys, a three-toed sloth, and a pair of coatimundis. (To be honest, I was pining over Nito.)
I began fantasizing about my first hot shower since leaving Lapa Rios. The moment we returned, I ignored the horrifying rumors that had been circulating through camp and headed for the shower brimming with optimism…only to find not only was there no hot water, there wasn’t even a hot knob, and somehow the water managed to be colder than the ocean.
A Day in San José
Wonders never cease. On the last of four Costa Rica rainforest hopper flights—this one from Carate to San José—my blood pressure didn’t even bobble while speeding down the miniature gravel runway, my heart didn’t skip a beat when (I swear) we grazed the tips of the trees, and I smiled as we wobbled and bobbed our way up into the clouds. I even chatted it up with the pilot and gazed out the window while saying a silent goodbye to the rainforest.
Our last day in San José wreaked havoc on our rainforest-ed senses. The grime, the crowds, the clusters of “las muchachas con un surpriso” standing on every street corner, the taxi’s driver’s warning against passport theft. But, the colorful and artsy Hotel Don Carlos helped assuage the pain. We surrendered our traveler dignity [and a few chuckles] to a guided tour of the Britt Coffee Plantation, then savored a final scrumptious dinner inside a former plantation mansion at Grano de Oro. As we ate our last course, our favorite fellow Corcovado camper showed up to gift us a heartfelt hug. A bittersweet ending to an amazing costa rica rainforest adventure.