Friday, December 18, 2009

Taking Flight in Costa Rica

img 0576 300x225 Taking Flight in Costa RicaMy Aunt Kari is turning 60 in a couple of weeks, and has been having a hard time dealing with that reality. In order to escape it for awhile, she and her husband recently journeyed to lush, warm, tropical Costa Rica.

After all, as a friend reminded her, at the end all you have is memories. What better memories are there than traveling to great places together?

And there you have it, folks — the entire point of my humble blog.

Kari was initially encouraged to explore Costa Rica by a friend who’d grown up there, but when she learned about the country’s rainforests full of exotic birds, she was hooked; she and her husband, Larry, are avid bird watchers.

azdryside of passe copy72 300x201 Taking Flight in Costa RicaBut the more research they did on the country, the more Kari started to think a tour was the way to go. While they appreciated the spontaneity and flexibility of a previous tour-free trip to England, they’d also had anxieties over train schedules, missed museum exhibits and more. They’d taken a tour of Israel six years prior, and found it a safe and easy way to see a small country renowned for its bad drivers. Besides the fact that she and Larry don’t speak Spanish, their biggest concern in Costa Rica was simply getting around.

Many of the roads in Costa Rica are narrow and dangerous, and there are almost no street names or building numbers. For example, in San Jose, where they began and ended their trip, if they’d wanted to drive somewhere, it would have been almost impossible to get clear directions; a local might instruct them to “Turn at the Coca-Cola plant”…when the Coca-Cola plant hadn’t actually been there in 10 years. Putting themselves in the hands of experienced local guides seemed, and proved, to be a brilliant idea.

Since Kari and Larry are members of the Smithsonian Institution, they didn’t have to search far to find their eco-focused tour, Costa Rica – Nature’s Museum. The 9-day central and northern tour, which (generally) ventures into national parks, up volcanoes, down rivers, and through jungles and forests, has twelve schedules planned between now and April 2011.

atortugueronpcanal anhingae72 300x225 Taking Flight in Costa Rica

Kari was most excited about the Tortuguero National Park, a large swatch of land in the northeast corner of the country, on the Caribbean coast; the park contains the world’s first preserved nesting area for green sea turtles.

It also boasts 23 miles of protected beach, reachable only by small plane or boat, and one of the richest rainforests on Earth.

In Tortuguero, they went on a couple of spectacular river and canal boat tours to observe the park’s birds and animals…their own version of heaven.

atilajariredrumpedte72 300x222 Taking Flight in Costa RicaThey saw about 50 different types of birds (including two types of toucans), caimans, howler monkeys, white faced monkeys, tons of orchids and epiphytes, lizards, and more.

In addition to their invaluable main guide, Herman, for this portion of the trip they had a special guide, Geraldo, and a boat driver who were experienced in locating birds and animals that would have been impossible for the tour members to find. Herman explained that the driver and Geraldo are so tuned in to nature that they can simply sense a creature’s presence.

Kari and Larry stayed at a spartan eco-lodge in the park, set right in the rainforest. After their first boat trip, they came back to sit on the porch of their cabin to relax, but were soon distracted by the nature all around them: Hummingbirds, lizards, and a whole flock of stunning white-collared manakins, birds with yellow bellies, white collars and black caps. They were awoken at 5 AM by the whooping calls of howler monkeys, the strangest sound they’d ever heard; later that morning, up in a tree, they saw a dozen female howlers and their babies being watched over by their alpha male.

img 0583 300x225 Taking Flight in Costa RicaThe tour as a whole, though, wasn’t entirely downside-free.

While the buses were modern and surprisingly comfortable, by the trip’s end, they were fully over being on a bus.

They were disappointed by not seeing either promised volcano. There had been an earthquake at Poas Volcano, and the trip organizers wouldn’t take the risk of going there. (Had Kari and Larry been alone, they would definitely have gone.) Instead, they went to an orchid garden…which was pretty, but no volcano.

Volcano #2, Arenal, was obscured by rainforest clouds the night they went to see it.

img 0574 300x225 Taking Flight in Costa RicaIn the tour’s lodgings, they were less than wowed by the bland buffets of traditional Costa Rican food, centered around rice and pinto beans. Kari’s friend had talked up the great international food that you can get in Costa Rica, but in the tour’s interest of authenticity, they experienced exactly none of it. At the Tilajari Resort, they finally went out on a limb: For one precious meal they ordered outstanding fresh mahi-mahi off the menu at the resort’s Katira Restaurant.

All this said, though, they still feel excited every time they think of their trip…which is every few hours, even weeks later. They’ve already inspired several of their friends to book their own trips to Costa Rica.

img 0408 300x225 Taking Flight in Costa RicaKari’s most challenging, exhilarating experience here was zip-lining through the cloudforest. She was surprised to find that zip-lining itself was the easiest part; the hardest was landing on each platform, then crossing to the next one via a swaying bridge with only cables for railings. These bridges tapped into her worst phobia — hurtling from a great height to a grisly death on the forest floor — but since there wasn’t an option, she just sucked it up and kept on walking. Most of the zip-line runs were fairly short as they worked their way up to the treetops, but the last one took them all the way down to the ground at a breakneck speed.

Not too bad for a 60 year-old, wouldn’t you say?

* Special thanks to Lynne Tweedie and Kari Uman for their photos.

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