The tea kettle starts to whistle and I begin pouring hot water over ground coffee. The morning air is already warm but our camper is under the shade of this wonderful tree. Its canopy stretches over us like a wide beach umbrella. I stop mid pour when something drops on the camper roof. And then again. We poke our heads outside and look up to see the culprit. Spider monkeys. They are jumping on the stronger branches, breaking off the smaller ones and then tossing what they don’t like – the discarded sticks are landing on our camper. They leap and swing through tree branches, catching themselves with one arm and then releasing to drop down with a synchronized movement – when the arm releases the tail picks up the slack. They glide like olympic gymnasts – born to swing and flip using every limb, knowing when to grip, knowing when to let go. Amazing the rest of us. The howler monkeys may have the strongest call in the jungle, but the spider monkeys are pure entertainment. “Forget everything I told you about my next life…” I tell Colin as we watch this show in the trees, “If I come back it better be as a spider monkey.” He doesn’t seem surprised to hear me say this, nods and says something about how I am closer than I think.
We see monkeys. Lots of monkeys. We see big colorful bugs and toads that are the size of Colin’s foot that magically appear as soon as the sun goes down. We see the spikey back of a crocodile that hangs in the river just beyond our camp spot. We see birds, turkeys, chickens, lizards, a sloth in the tree and a baby sloth in a pen named Nola (who was left by her mother and rescued by Agi at Canas Castilla). All of this…and we are only 7 miles south of the Nicaragua border. In Nicaragua, we didn’t see anything but landscapes smoothed over by deforestation. We drove from the border to the finca, Canas Castilla, and got our first taste of why Costa Rica is a favorite of wildlife lovers. And why Canas Castilla is a destination of overlanders.
Agi and Guido purchased this spot about 18 years ago and turned their piece of Costa Rica into a place to farm, to hike, to gather under their wide porch overlooking the river and share dinner with other guests, to camp, to spend the night in cabanas, to sit, to relax, to drink homemade wine…to leave and to come back. We stayed with them on our trip south and again on our return trip north. There’s a table on their porch with laminated cards showing which birds and reptiles can be found in this part of the country along with other notes and hiking guides and two big books filled with comments from travelers. From all over the world, returning again and again.
Beaches and Back Roads
Two peninsulas kick out from Costa Rica like little boots. The Nicoya to the north and Osa to the south. On Nicoya, we find back roads and mud roads that lead to secluded beaches lined with palm trees and waves smashing on black flat rocks that lie just beyond the shore. The water looks too rough to swim in so we walk around the beach and notice tiny shells start to move. Hundreds of them. Colin leans down and picks up one to inspect. Its little body shoots out to assess the situation and upon seeing us he immediately hides back in his shell. The only hermit crabs we have ever seen are in those small plastic cages, shells painted, sold by vendors in various beach towns back in the US. They seem to like this lifestyle better. Of course we can’t help ourselves and pick two to race. I pick the dud who seems very active at first but once the race starts he decides to take a nap. Colin’s pick heads straight for the finish line.
After spending a few days on the sand and in the sand and getting a dusting of sand over everything, we move inland to see some of the parks. Volcano Arenal is on the list of 10 most active volcanos in the world. Colin really wants to see some hot lava and we heard that at night, if the sky is clear, you can see a fiery glow from the top. There is a beautiful drive that curls its way around Lake Arenal and ends up near the volcano. Where the pavement ends a gravel road picks up and then runs right into a river. Hmmmm. Not too sure about this long section under rapidly flowing water, Colin gets out to have a look.
Somehow I get the job of walking in front of the truck through the river while he drives behind me. At points the water reaches over the top of the tires and the bottom edge of my shorts, but we crawl out with no problems. We notice a smaller vehicle, a Toyota Rav 4 is parked on the opposed side, with a couple standing by their opened doors pointing towards us, looking back at their vehicle and then discussing something. We can’t hear their conversation but we can tell they are considering their next move. They climb back in the car and start to drive toward the water’s edge. Colin gets out and tries to direct them away from a large rock as they get a little closer. Their car is smaller and much lower to the ground but it continues to push through the river. They make it and pull up next to us. As their car doors open a rush of water dumps out from both sides. We all start cracking up but they shrug and say, “it’s just a rental!” We are happy to have high clearance especially when we end up crossing that river 2 more times…not all maps are as clear as the river. We find a dispersed spot to camp on the southwestern edge of the lake, with a perfect view of the volcano. As night takes over we watch from our camp chairs, looking for any signs of red glow from the top. The only thing we see are blinking stars and the only sound we hear are the crickets and frogs.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
We find Monteverde at higher elevation and tucked neatly around a forest. It feels like fall weather. Comfortable and cool. A light misty rain comes through at some point during the day with the sun still shining against a blue sky. From camp we can walk to Monteverde Coffee Company, a few grocery stores, gift shops and the Monteverde Cheese Factory. This becomes a habit for two reasons. Cheese and ice cream that they make on site. Cheese has been a topic of great discussion. Colin learns that due to his absence from the wide selection of cheese in the U.S. he started having cravings not too long after we crossed into Mexico. At one point we found a Costco while we were on the Baja, and I made the mistake of letting Colin go in while I waited in the truck with Sprite. He comes back about an hour later with only three things: two bottles of red wine and the largest block of extra sharp white cheddar I have ever seen. He takes a few minutes to lay out the rules of HIS cheese so that I understand the seriousness of the sharp cheddar. He is the only one who gets to hand out the rations. Very small slivers, no large chunks. In a world of queso blanco, though many brands, the taste is all the same – bland. This is what happens when we leave behind the things we take for granted and never realized it. For Colin it’s cheese. So we walk to the Monteverde Cheese factory almost every day. Two cones and a wedge of aged gouda.
We have so much fun outside of the actual cloud forest national park we finally decide on our last day to walk up the road a mile and pay our entrance fee and see what this is all about. At this point we are convinced that the cloud forest must be very similar to the forest where we have been camping and bird watching. We are very wrong.
Right after we hand over our money and get our tickets, it hits us. Our first step into the park and we are instantly on another page of understanding. A narrow path is laid out nicely but everything around the path, from the roots to the tips of the tallest trees, has been saved and untouched – evidence of what can happen when humans leave well enough alone. Vines the size of small branches dangle from tree tops I can’t even see, ferns taller than me fan out onto the paved path forcing us to slide around them, green moss climbs over bark, dewy air, spongy soil, bright tropical flowers flash their colors amongst the dense green space. Up above, the clouds move fast and the whole place seems like it was freshened by a spray, like in the produce aisle at the grocery store. We get to a viewpoint and can see the tops of low mountains for what seems like miles and they are all covered with this dense forest.
We walk slowly and in silence, looking up and down and around us, taking in this new place for the first time. A bird chirps and it’s the sound of a swing attached to a rusty chain, squeaking back and forth. It’s a sound we have heard before but not coming from a bird. Sunlight filters through the blades of plants and all of the tiny spaces not taken over by living breathing forest. On our way out just past the exit sign the world looks different. I stop a few times and look behind me, back to the path that turns dark, as if to convince myself again its a real place.
To Save the Wildlife
I start becoming a bird nut at this point. My dad would be proud to hear me say this. My dad, with his stacks of bird books on his side table next to his cracked green leather chair. His binoculars by the window looking out towards his many feeders. I email him to say that the birds in Costa Rica are incredible. He needs to put down his binoculars and get down here now. I read a few facts in a travel book about the number of birds and other wildlife in this tiny jewel of a country. Something like 894 species of birds are found here. That is more than the US and Canada combined. In a country the size of West Virginia it contains four percent of species estimated to exist on the planet (according to wikipedia). But numbers on a page look very different when they show up in real life. To see scarlet macaws flying in pairs with their long ruby red tail and a call that can’t be mistaken. Toucans with their famous large beak. Green parakeets fluttering in groups. They are birds we see on cards and cereal boxes, kids coloring books, cartoons, sadly in cages and sometimes tied to a twig for sale on the side of the street. To see them in the wild, in their real home, is to realize how important places like this are to our world.
How a country the size of West Virginia can pack so much wildlife into its borders makes anyone want to curse the person whose vision is a landscape of sleek new buildings, stacked tall and wide with views of everything its killing. We see this happening with our own eyes at Manual Antonio National Park. A tight two lane road leads the way to the park. The path cuts tight turns around restaurants and towering hotels. At points from the road, the ocean is visible. Its waves spraying over bolders that sit just out from the shore. We arrive in the off season yet busses, taxis and other cars are busy hauling everyone to the end of the road. To the National Park. They limit the number of visitors to 600 per day to give some relief to the animals who are already crowded, backed into a spec of jungle left behind for them after the development (about 1,664 acres). Spider monkeys, endangered squirrel monkeys, 2 and 3 toed sloths, tree frogs, bats, birds and another 100 or so other creatures. It’s an astounding list of animals and that’s why the road is jammed with people who want to see them.
We all get our glimpse, take our photos and then hustle back down the road to cool off in our nice comfy hotel rooms. (We are guilty of this as well – paying a visit, splurging on a nice hotel room, forgetting all about the animals and the jungle while standing in the most refreshing shower…AC on full blast.) We post our pictures and go home to show our family and friends. It gets stored in the memory bank. We move on. We don’t know or don’t care about the plans to build more hotels, better restaurants, accommodations that require cutting off just another acre or two from the jungle. What’s another acre? Development is killing the very thing we are all traveling (from all over the world) to see. Colin and I think about this a lot as we drive away, the balance of nature and development. What can each of us do in our own way to protect these special places?
The first time I read these words they were sewn on to the rear end of a girl’s pink pants. I see it again on t-shirts and stickers. I start to notice Costa Ricans saying this to each other as a greeting when passing or to say good-bye. A few times they say this to us. But it means a lot more than something catchy to stitch on a pair of hot pink pants. “Pure life.” As far as anyone of us knows for sure, this life is the only one we have. Take it in, take it as it comes, but don’t take it for granted. Be good to yourself, be good to the people around you, and the environment that surrounds all of us. Some are doing better, but some are doing worse. Remember to live life like it’s the only one you’ve got.
(More pictures below…)