Our khaki-clad guide Sergio, a small man with wiry gray hair, neat mustache and beard, green bandanna tied around his forehead, stopped abruptly on the heavily forested trail. Finger to lips, he motioned for silence. Our group froze mid-step, and leaned in to hear his soft-spoken words. Head cocked to the left, he listened intently and then nodded vigorously. “yes. Yes,” he whispered with a heavy Spanish accent. “They are coming. The spider monkeys are coming.”
We were standing in the middle of Carara National Park on the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica on a week-long adventure trip. This lush rain forest, directly off the Pam-American Highway, is uniquely located at the apex of two eco systems—the dry rain forest of the Pacific north and the wet, humidsouthern coast. This little gem boasts one of the highest diversity of trees, including 10 of the rarest hardwoods in the country, and is also home to American crocodiles, anteaters, ocelots, poison-arrow frogs, and the much endangered spider monkeys.
With excited anticipation of their arrival, we scanned the dense canopy with occasional stray sun ray streaming through. At our feet, busy streams of leaf-cutter ants hauled green loads three times their body weight along tiny paths to unseen subterranean nests. And though we waited in silence, our ears were assaulted by the non-stop, near-deafening sound of millions of love-sick cicadas singing their shrill mating song—their chorus, a cross between maddening and magical.
Soon branches swayed and rustled as if brushed by a light wind; a handful of leaves, freed from their branches, spiraled earthward. Then we spotted them—the troop of spider monkeys barely visible amidst the dense greenery. Long tails wrapped around tree limbs, and equally long arms reached out grasping branches and vines, swinging, and jumping from branch to branch, tree to tree. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone, leaving behind only the thrill of having witnessed their acrobatic performance.
Our trip was filled with many such rewarding moments, whether watching the antics of spider monkeys, or staring skyward at a small opening in a towering tree to find two brilliantly-colored, scarlet macaws,
tending their nest of chicks, staring back at us with equal curiosity; or spotting a golden anteater resting in a fork of a tree high above. The Carara reserve is a jewel, but there are many such jewels in Costa Rica, a country committed to preserving its rich biodiversity, making it an ecotourism haven with an adventure around every corner. This tiny country, a tad smaller than West Virginia, has more than 850 species of birds (more than in all of North America); 9,000 kinds of flowering plants, 209 species of mammals and 35,000 species of insects. Though Costa Rica covers less than four percent of the Earth’s surface, about five percent of the planet’s plant and animal species are found there. Within its small confines are no less than 12 distinct ecosystems ranging from cloud-covered mountain peaks towering nearly 13,000 feet high to black and
white sand beaches at sea level.
The beachfront Marriott Los Suenos Resort in Herradura, served as home for our week-long visit that began with a picturesque, a two-hour drive from San Jose International Airport along a twisting roadway through lush, green, mountainous countryside. Along the way we passed small, unpretentious homes with families and friends sitting outside enjoying vida pura (the pure life), Costa Rica’s unofficial slogan for “the good life.” We learn that “Titos,” as Costa Ricans call themselves, are proud of their country’s ecological jewels and enjoy showcasing these wonders to visitors. That pride was evident in our experienced guides, like Sergio, who shared their extensive knowledge and deep passion for both the wildlife and environment as they accompanied us on our excursions.
Among our travels was a visit to Manuel Antonio National Park. Though it is Costa Rica’s smallest national park, it is one of the most popular, and has been named one of the world’s 12 most beautiful. It did not disappoint. A short, scenic drive down a highway lined with African Palm Tree plantations and
intermittent views of the Pacific Ocean delivered us to this rich bio diverse showpiece, replete with abundant wildlife, and a tropical forest that sweeps down to the very edge of postcard-quality, white sand beaches and turquoise water. Because the park is isolated from other forested areas by the palm plantations and surrounding development, the wildlife is confined to the limited acreage, as well. Sightings are frequent, and on our short, leisurely hike through the forest to the beach we encountered both two-toed and three-toed sloths nestled in trees, white-faced capuchin monkeys, endangered red squirrel monkeys, tiny bats, a pack of hungry raccoons, and even a Jesus Christ lizard, so named because the young ones can literally walk upright on water.
Our Carara canopy tram tour was as relaxing as our zip-line tour was exciting, but the Rio Tarcoles river cruise was the prefect climax to our week’s adventure. This 69-mile river serves in part as the northern border of the Carara reserve. It is reputed to have the highest population of
crocodiles anywhere in the world, boasting as many as 63 per square mile, some 2,000 in all. In addition to the crocs, the Tarcoles supports more than 50 species of migratory, native, and coastal birds. In a word, it is a birder’s paradise, and as recent newcomers to bird watching, the timing could not have been more perfect.
As we boarded the canopied boat the peaks of the Cordillera Central volcanic range—the river’s source—were visible in the distance. The river’s low banks and abundant mudflats allowed a plethora of birds to work
the water’s edge, while all sizes of countless crocodiles basked in the sun. Horses grazed alongside the river, and Brahman bulls wandered to its banks. It was fascinating to see such a diversity of wildlife coexisting in so close of proximity.
The boat plied slowly through the river’s calm, muddy waters, which gave us ample opportunity to move from side to side of the boat to view and photograph the avian smorgasbord. In little more than a three miles roundtrip we saw birds both common and not so common to us—roseate spoonbills, great egrets, snowy egrets, ibis, willets, anhingas, northern jacanas, great kisadees, swallows, black-necked stilts, southern lapwings, boat-billed heron, tiger herons, yellow-crowned night herons, great blue herons, yellow-headed caracaras, green kingfisher, wood stork, vultures, frigatebird, and osprey.
Before our cruise ended, our much-scarred boat guide pulled the craft to the riverbank, and de-boarded.
With only a piece of chicken between him and a half-ton crocodile, nicknamed “Mike Tyson,” the guide coaxed the beast completely out of the water so we could have a closer look at its immense size. It was a befitting end to an incredible adventure.
When Columbus first landed on the shores of this country in 1502, he named it Costa Rica, the Rich Coast, for the many valuable minerals he envisioned to be found there. Columbus was wrong, of course. There are no minerals, but the treasures to behold in this tropical paradise are far richer and much more valuable. They are not only worthy of a trip, but many return trips as well.