Pura Vida in Costa Rica

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

Nacho, our guide, screamed “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” or more precisely “Roke en Ruhl,” from the aft of our careening rubber raft. I knew this was a crucial riverine command but for the life of me all I could think of was Chuck Berry.

My wife, our only child and I had just entered a Class IV rapids in the swirling Naranjo River near Quepos, Costa Rica. Even before attaining this apocalyptic point, not halfway into our three-hour whitewater rumpus, I had begun to fear for my genetic legacy.

Nacho, until recently a casual, carefree young man, bellowed the command again. My wife pulled me from my sitting position on the left-front gunnels down into the boat. We were about to hit a rock – the biggest boulder so far – and roll.

I don’t mean to brag, but we hit this Central American Scylla straight on, flush, dead center – the rafting equivalent of a hole-in-one. We slid on up, as a walrus whooshes gracefully from the ocean onto an ice flow. For a second we were stranded at nearly a 45-degree angle: rock but no roll. Then we slid back and the furious current spun the raft like a top, tossing all four of us into Charybdis, a frothing whirlpool that would have transformed Odysseus into a homebody.

Instinctively my rigorous two-minutes of land training kicked in. I kept one hand on the boat’s gunnel rope, one hand on my paddle – you are not to let go of your paddle under any circumstances – and I pointed my feet downstream to minimize death and dying from submarine rocks. The only problem was that I was on my back, under the boat and underwater. Screw the paddle. With two hands on the boat I could breath. The bad news was: I assumed I would never see my nuclear family again. I couldn’t see them anywhere, only angry churning water.

Suddenly, Nacho, who had somehow gotten back into the raft, grabbed me by the scruff of my lifejacket and hauled me out of the water like a bloated slippery carp. I dutifully flopped and slithered about before regaining a soupcon of white-knuckled composure. Downstream my son, wife and paddle had been saved by our companion boat, which looked like a birds’ nest with too many chicks in it.

We reached a quiet shore and raised our paddles on high, then slapped the water hard in unison, the traditional rafters’ salute after running nasty rapids. Other than a few bruises we were perfectly fine. As they say in Costa Rica “Pura Vida”, pure life, it was all good. At $65 a head including a fresh pineapple (very sweet) and cookie snack, plus a hefty tip for Nacho, we got our money’s worth and then some.

You can pack plenty of vida into a week in Costa Rica, a friendly, stable, ecologically diverse nation three times the size of Massachusetts. One-quarter of the country is conservation land, about half of that in 25 national parks boasting pristine Atlantic and Pacific beaches, active volcanoes, steamy rain forests, mountain ranges, wild rivers, hot springs, upland plains and coral reefs.

Such habitat variety translates into a higher density of bird and animal species per square kilometer than anywhere else on the planet. For example, more than 850 types of birds have been recorded in Costa Rica. The flora is no slouch either: There are approximately 1,300 different orchids alone, 2,000 kinds of trees (a New England state is lucky if it has 50 varieties), and new plants are being discovered every year.

Not surprisingly, eco-tourism is a growth industry here. In fact, tourism in general, which did not rate a mention in encyclopedias less than two decades ago, is now the nation’s largest industry, ahead of coffee and banana production. A myriad of businesses can bring visitors face-to-face with nature, if not their own mortality. It could be spotting a blue-crowned motmot from a hanging bridge high in the rain forest canopy. Or discovering a poison dart frog on the forest floor, while a troupe of endangered squirrel monkeys scurries above. Park guides know where to find sleeping boa constrictors, languid sloths and the like, and charter captains take anglers out to catch (and release if they choose) giant sailfish. There are butterflies galore in the wild, but impatient sorts can visit a “farm” to drink in hundreds of beautiful butterflies fluttering in captivity.

The adventures come in package deals or can be approached a la carte, as we did. Thanksgiving week we flew into San Jose (where virtually all flights come and go) from Hartford via Miami, roughly six hours of flight time ($706 per person round trip [in 2004]). At the airport we rented a small compact, rather than a pricier four-wheel drive, which some companies require during the rainy season (which had just ended). We questioned our decision more than once.

It’s a toss-up over the scarier of the two, Naranjo River rapids or Costa Rican roads, which appear in spots to have been shelled. Dodging potholes is a national sport and vehicles will often cross over completely into the left lane to miss swaths of them. The bridges take it to the next level. My favorite is a one-lane railroad span in Quepos, build in 1902 by the United Fruit Company, apparently unmaintained since except to be retrofitted with what looks like largely unsecured scrap metal rods. One would never venture across this undulating, clanging highway bridge were other cars and trucks not already streaming over it – and if it weren’t the only way to get to where one was going. The good news is you don’t have to tip anyone after getting across. One other driving note: Costa Rica’s equivalent to a major highway is like our narrow two-lane rural roads, unadorned by route numbers, and since this is a very literate nation there is an "escuela" zone to slow down for roughly every 100 yards.

From San Jose we drove three hours to The Arenal Volcano National Park and Volcano Lodge, one of dozens of pleasant hostelries that have sprang up since the volcano became active again in 1968. Our room was $80 a night for three, but $100 during the high season running from mid-December through April, including a buffet breakfast. The eruption that year destroyed two villages and killed almost 70 people and 45,000 cattle.

The 5,356-foot-tall, cinematically symmetrical peak (the height, if not the shape, of Mt. Washington) is active almost every day, rumbling, smoking and even oozing lava. Our first night, while having dinner and an Imperial or two (one of several palatable local lagers) in the lodge’s restaurant, Arenal did its thing, growling ominously and pulsating red eerily from its summit half way up the night sky. During the day, if not shrouded in clouds or mist, Arenal lords over everything constantly emitting a plume of white smoke, as if it were created as a Tarzan movie backdrop.

Numerous day trips options from the area’s hotels can be booked at the front desks and tacked onto the bill. We took a guided half-day bike tour ($45 per person, including the usual pineapple/cookie snack) into the national park and along the shore of Lake Arenal, where, among other wonders, we spied our first of many monkeys. A band of howlers, the largest of four species native to Costa Rica, were munching quietly on tree leaves not 30 feet above us. At another spot our guide pointed out SUV-sized craters that had been made by molten boulders launched during the great 1968 eruption. We stopped where one of the destroyed villages had stood, two kilometers from the Arenal’s summit. It is now an empty field.

In addition to its scenic charm, the 54-mile-long Lake Arenal is ranked among the top three windsurfing spots in the world due to the predictability of its winds, especially from December through April.

The next day we attacked the nearby Arenal Hanging Bridges, a nearly two-mile meander through the rain forest on narrow trails and bridges, including six spectacular metal suspension spans hundreds of feet long and as much as 150 feet above terra firma. This private 600-acre preserve offers stunning views of the Arenal volcano and surrounding environs, deep-woods birding and a long wispy waterfall.

We had to forgo luxuriating in the hot springs and various spa treatments of Tabacon Lodge as we set off on the five-hour drive south and west to Manuel Antonio on the central Pacific Coast.
Villas Nicolas provided spacious quarters, kitchenette, towel art (heart-shaped on the beds) and an ample terrace with a view of the Pacific and the best birding of the trip, not 15 feet from the refrigerator stocked with Imperial. One of our neighbors was a three-toed sloth, and white-faced monkeys regularly took a short cut across the compound roofs. Howler monkeys serenaded at dawn.

On either side of the three-mile main drag packed with hotels, restaurants, mini-casinos and outdoor outfitters, the second-growth rain forest rules. Across the street is a private wildlife preserve featuring trails and an enclosed butterfly botanical garden operated by the Hotel Si Como No. A guided bird walk can add more than a dozen species to your life list, such as the yellow-crowned euphonia, in less than two hours.

The primary attraction of Manuel Antonio is the splendid national park of the same name, a 4,500-acre preserve teeming with wildlife in a the rain forest that reaches down to stunningly beautiful beaches and coral reefs, where the snorkling is excellent. It is so popular that daily admission is restricted to 600 people and it is closed Mondays. While one of Costa Rica’s smallest parks it is widely regarded as among the best. Without a guide, we managed to see a band of the endangered mono titis (squirrel monkeys) here – only an estimated 1,500 remain – and witnessed numerous monkeyshines. One white-faced deftly lifted a bather’s lunch from his backpack while nearby another battled with a white-nosed coati and a German tourist for a baguette. Though cute, the monkeys do bite on occasion.

After rafting and beaching we launched ourselves into the jungle again with a half-day canopy safari. Once fortified by a traditional breakfast feast of gallopinto (refried black beans and rice), fried plantain, tortillas, eggs and fresh papaya and pineapple, our guides harnessed us up and we began to zip through the treetops along cables connecting nine platforms more than 100 feet above the ground. While a thrill and a half, and despite the brochure, we saw no wildlife and the post canopy swim was cancelled for vague reasons.

While the three of us had Thanksgiving dinner for $100 all told at one of the strip’s many tourist eateries, the next night we hit Angel’s, an indigenous establishment featuring basic local fare. Dinner for three plus beverages came to less than $20. The décor, highlighted by driftwood, live vines and a tin roof, is way understated and the ice for the lukewarm beer is free. They don’t serve water. It was our favorite place.