Costa Rica Journey (April 2005)

Costa Rica Journey Notes (2005)

Fifteen of us went adventuring on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast in early April. We stayed a week in the hills near Puerto Viejo, which bills itself “A sunny place for shady people.” Here the Rasta-man lifestyle rules, with Ganja (marijuana) readily available. We trekked jungle trails, and zip-lined through the rainforest canopy. We visited the Bri Bri reservation and learned about the healing local botanicals. Some of us went on to Tortuguero, a famous turtle breeding ground and wildlife reserve. Both areas you can easily spot the tourists in their quick-dry khaki garb, which contrasts with the local wardrobe of tank top, rubber boots and machete. Rubber boots for slogging through muddy rivers and streams, and machete for keeping the rain fed jungle at bay. And it does rain, but no problem. It’s a warm rain that sets frogs, toads, keel billed and chestnut billed toucans, house geckos and monkeys to singing a sublime song that I wanted to bring home. A CD of natural jungle sounds just doesn’t measure up to the rainforest’s twenty-four hour wildlife broadcast. It starts with the wake-up bark of howler monkeys and caw of toucans, then plays on into the night as toads trumpet mating calls–all underscored by a soothing patter of rain.

On this, my second Costa Rica trip, I met my goal and saw plenty of wildlife. First day on retreat a white faced capuchin monkey scolded us for invading his/her territory as we wended our way under his/her trees to our Swiss Family Robinson style bungalows. A saucer sized electric-blue morpho butterfly breezed by, and half-inch long bullet ants with nasty looking pinchers hungrily followed our tracks. Neon orange and red poison-dart frogs were everywhere. Wing, our guide said “Touch them, then touch your lip and you die. No joke.” He was dead serious, and thus the frog’s name. When natives hunted, they’d touch their arrow point to one of these gem-like specimens, aim, fire – and their target keeled over dead. The frogs sure are beautiful, as are the snakes, which are plentiful, but shy away from well traveled trails. Our last day, we finally saw a venomous juvenile safely sleeping, ready a close-ups. Of course there are risks when nature’s teeming all around you, and dangerous encounters with snakes, spiders, scorpions do happen. And then there are the assault fish. The what??! The assault fish…

So, I’m swimming at Punta Uva beach; listed in Outside magazine as one of the 7 best swimming beaches in the world. I stood up and THWACK!#*!, 6 inches of flying fish slapped me in the face. A bit dazed, with my nose bleeding profusely, I headed to the local clinic. I can now vouch for the efficiency of Costa Rica’s medical system. Thirty bucks got me a Doctor’s visit and enough free antibiotics to stave off infection. The next day I had an impressive shiner. I’ve searched field guides to no avail–my assailant remains in the UFO category. I came home with no scars and an after the fact funny travel tale. The next up close and personal critter encounter was with the most adorable and cuddly “Buttercup” – a tame, three-fingered sloth, who lives at Aviaros del Caribe on the Estrella River Delta. Remember R2D2′s tall Wookie friend in Star Wars? Well, shrink him down to 20 lbs, plaster a perpetual smile on his face and you’ll have yourself a sloth. There are two types of sloth: the diurnal leaf eating variety like Buttercup, and the two fingered nocturnal omnivores. Both of these gentle creatures are related to aardvarks and ant eaters, not monkeys as you’d suspect. They spend most of their time high in the rainforest canopy. With roads and telephone wires encroaching on their habitat they have unfortunate accidents. The lucky ones, like Buttercup, are rescued and taken to facilities such as Aviaros del Caribe, where tender care allows rehabilitation, and whenever possible, release back into the wild. For more on Aviaros del Caribe visit and click on “must sees.”

While Buttercup is a must see, the highlight of the adventure was a midnight rendezvous with a female leatherback turtle. Our first night in Tortuguero, a guide took us walking on the dark, nearly deserted beach. We’d been forewarned that although April was high season for leatherback nesting, chances of seeing this take place were slim. Unlike the green turtles that arrive en mass on these beaches June through October, the larger leatherbacks (large as in 500 to 1,500 pounds) are solitary animals. Only a few per night come ashore to lay eggs along a 22 mile stretch. After an hour’s hike we stopped to rest, and huddled round our soft spoken guide. He explained that leatherback females sexually mature at around 30. They instinctually return to the beach where they hatched to lay their 100 -120 eggs. They return every 5 years to the same beach 7 times in their life and repeat the tiring and painful nesting process. Research indicates that leatherbacks can live to 120 years. A necessary ripe old age, because of the 700 odd eggs they lay in a lifetime, they’ll be lucky if 20 of the offspring survive. Predators consume the eggs, the hatchings, and young turtles. Until recently turtles were hunted as food and for their shells. Turtle soup and tortoise shell ornaments are still sold, but fortunately live turtles have become a profitable tourist attraction. Because of sanctuaries like Tortuguero these amazing creatures, which have walked the planet since prehistoric times, may not become extinct. We were ready to call it a night when our guide spotted her. All I saw was a large, rock like shape, lumbering out of the tide. The guide directed an infra-red beam at her, and we were all instantly awestruck and reverent. She was coming right at us, as if we didn’t exist. We’d been coached that if we came upon a turtle we’d watch in darkness. I’d picked this particular week for the trip because the moon was dark. That’s when turtles are more apt to venture onto the shore. Over the next half hour the guide shot his infra-red beam on the mamma turtle for only a few fleeting seconds. He explained that while laying her eggs she was in a hormone induced trance–oblivious to us–intent only on digging deep enough to safely bury her load of gelatinous, ping-pong ball sized eggs. The guide deduced this was probably her first time nesting because she was relatively small, and lacked the strength to get far enough away from the encroaching tide to dig a safe nest. She was on auto-pilot, digging, digging, deeper and deeper, tossing sand at us, and then she settled into place, letting out universal mother child-birthing moans, as the eggs dropped. She didn’t feel the waves washing over them, contaminating them. There was no way to save them. The guide consoled us reminding us that she was young, and would nest several more times in her life. This was all part of the natural order, and we could not interfere. Once she was done he motioned us to leave, warning that when she came out of her stupor and realized we were there, she’d panic. We walked away from what felt like a surreal encounter, all of us knowing that this was probably a once in lifetime event that we’d never forget. To learn more about the turtles of Tortuguero visit, and consider their “adopt a turtle” program. What a wonderful gift to give to a loved one–and to send as a 2005 holiday gift to all those on your list who “have everything.”

And there are other “musts” to include when you visit Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast: Venture into the jungle with a guide and trek to a waterfall. Talk about a natural way to drive out the demons and lift your spirits! Then, all of Tortuguero National Park is a dreamtime experience for wildlife lovers. You arrive by speed boat, and are transported by boats for the duration of your stay. You glide along canals through the jungle. Boat pilots help you spot caiman, river otters and American crocodiles. The variety of birds you see is astonishing. Egrets and herons maneuver through the marshes. Aritanga’s pose with wings spread to dry in the afternoon sun. Flocks of toucans and parrots fly over the wide canals. Families of spider monkeys cavort in the overhead canopy, and howler monkeys bellow from their treetop posts. Sloths hug the highest branches and Iguanas stroll on the docks. It’s incredibly rewarding to see these animals in their natural habitat–and immensely healing for the soul to be in a vast protected, wild area on our planet.

And oh yes, we also tried our hand at wildlife drawing with some impressive results, and practiced Pilates and yoga to stave off post trek aches and pains, but then by now most of you know those daily movement sessions are part and parcel of every Health Habitravels journey–from 3 day weekends to two week journeys to the far reaches of the planet.

It has been over a quarter of a century since Costa Rica decided to protect their natural habitats and establish a system of national parks and sanctuaries. This has proven to be a boon for their economy, with eco-tourism being one of their four top industries. Other Central American countries are following Costa Rica’s lead–which opens up the possibility of amazing adventures in nations like Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Places I’ll explore in the not too distant future–as well as the next stop in Costa Rica, the Pacific coast. Hope you’ll be able to come along on one of these Health Habitravels healing expeditions–Blessings to all

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