LUSCIOUS COSTA RICA
by Frank Kaiser
It was that day in Tortuguero, Costa Rica — when, from our small flat-bottomed boat we saw spider and white-throated capuchin monkeys, three species of toucans, iridescent iguanas, “Jesus Christ” lizards that actually walk (or run) on water, Day-Glo butterflies with wingspans as wide as your head, several large caiman, and frogs and birds of every hue — that out of the mist suddenly I heard Jake.
I shivered. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, ancient horrors revived. Jake the Doberman had been my nemesis as a kid. Now I heard his growl, only louder and more werewolfian. Our guide, Ray Hooker, assured me that what I’d heard, then seen, were simply howler monkeys leaping from tree to tree high above us.
It’s a jungle out there! Wet with rain and smelling faintly of sweet decay, we were privileged to be in this fecund country in which five percent of all known species of life on Earth occupy less than 0.003 percent of Earth’s land area. The place is supremely beautiful. No wonder Costa Rica attracts some two million visitors a year, most of them drawn by ecotourism. Like so much of this country, the Costa Rican government fiercely protects Tortuguero Park.
Hooker, who has spent all his life in this remote area whispering its secrets to tourists like me, pointed to a small green heron that catches insects only to drop them into the black water as bait, fishing for bigger game. What a show-off!
Early that morning, as I explored the Caribbean beach behind our comfortable casita, I found tracks of a loggerhead turtle. Apparently, just hours before, she had fulfilled her destiny by returning to the place of her birth some 30 years earlier, struggling ashore to dig a hole in which to lay 100 or so eggs — one of which may be lucky enough to return here in another 30 years — continuing this 160-million-year cycle of life.
Such sightings are uncommon at this point in June, but from the middle of August until mid-September, I can almost guarantee that you will see this miracle unfold as the Atlantic green sea turtles return here each year. Even the rare Costa Rican jaguar is sometimes seen swimming across the river for a breakfast omelet.
Our Caravan Tour actually began two days before at the luxurious San Jose Palacio, an “all-inclusive" hotel where drinks, meals, tips and extra towels are all included. Since then, we had toured the capital city, visited the cloud-forest with its steam-belching mile-wide Poas Volcano crater (one of seven active in the country), seen the cascading waterfalls of Braulio Carrillo Park, taken a guided hike through yet another rainforest, and slipped through a forest canopy on an aerial tram.
There are 43 of us on this tour. Mostly professionals — doctors, engineers, some retirees — we’re aged 15 to 82. All are interested in ecology, travel, and nature.
For my wife, Carolyn, and me, this is our first group tour. And I can tell you we weren’t looking forward to getting herded from place to place.
But it wasn’t like that. Our tour guide, Patricia Alfaro, surely one of the most knowledgeable in the world about all things Costa Rican, kept us moving, learning, and laughing without ever feeling “grouped.” As it turned out, when I asked folks at the end of the tour what they liked best, most answered, “The fascinating new friends I made.”
Paradise for All (Species)
Besides four million Ticos, as the friendly Costa Ricans call themselves, this is home to over 240 mammal, 180 amphibian, 230 reptile, and 850 bird species — twice the number of bird species in the entire U.S. Costa Rica’s democracy is almost as old as our own. It has no army, a relatively high standard of living, and with its huge middle class, this small Central American country is arguably the most egalitarian in Latin America.
But are those reasons enough for a travel agent to recommend this place? Early one morning in La Fortuna, I asked a fellow traveler why he and his wife decided to come on this tour.
“We looked around,” he explained. “Europe’s too expensive and unfriendly. The Caribbean islands are boring. Africa is too far away. Hawaii’s a rip-off. Costa Rica is a safe democracy. People like us here. They're eco-minded. And where else in the world could you have a day like this?"
He pointed directly in front of our casita’s railed front porch where dozens of ruby-throated hummingbirds danced from flower to flower in the lush gardens. Beyond, as the mist cleared, the elegant, active Arenal Volcano rumbled and puffed into view.
During free time that morning, that traveler and his wife were horseback-riding to a hidden waterfall while others dressed for whitewater rafting, bird-watching, mountain-biking, or just walking into town.
That afternoon, we would all “take the thermo mineral waters" in the shadow of the volcano where we would choose between 10 large pools with temperatures ranging from 187 degrees down to 104. It was truly Cocoon, magically relieving aches and pains as we sat chest-deep sipping Pepsis.
All in all, our new big-glassed Mercedes bus explored 800 miles of this most beautiful of countries, meeting kind, warmhearted people all along the way.
On Day 7, shortly after departing the Americanized beach town of Jaco in our drive along the Pacific Coast toward the fishing village of Quepos, we passed through an earthquake-fault zone and over the several oh-so-temporary bridges, each narrower than the last. First, there was the “Oh My God" bridge, followed by the “Help Us, Jesus" bridge and finally the “We Must Be Driving on Water" bridge. From the back of the bus, someone yelled, “We must be in heaven!”
That’s Costa Rica. Heavenly. So much so that 40,000 Americans have chosen it for their permanent retirement homes. Yet another reason so many of us want to explore Central America's top tourist destination.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
After traveling about the world for some 70 years, author Frank Kaiser claims that Caravan Tours (1-800-227-2826) at $995 for 10 days — all meals, activities, hotels transfers, transportation, excursions, even tips included — has to be the best travel deal going today. Frequent, often daily departure dates. Visit www.caravantours.com.
COSTA RICA - Travel Tips
*What to Wear: Climate varies from the temperate central highlands of San Jose to the much warmer Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Remember, you’re only about 10 degrees north of the equator here. Caravan Tours recommends a sweater or light jacket. We also found the following useful: a lightweight hooded poncho-style raincoat; casual jeans; shorts; loose shirts; comfortable water-resistant shoes (a must); and swimwear. Although the pacing of the tour is excellent and never rushed or strenuous, there is a lot of walking, often in the rain (forests). Laundry service is available at all hotels.
*Eating & Drinking: Caravan Tours provides purified water at all meals and free bottled water on the motor-coach. Water is safe to drink in most touristy areas. Breakfasts are usually buffet-style, featuring many fresh fruits and eggs cooked to taste. Lunches and dinners generally provide choice of beef, fish, and chicken with local side dishes.
*Toilets: Never a problem.
*E-mail: All hotels, except those in the rainforests and La Fortuna (where there are five Internet cafes in town), have high-speed Internet connections, often free.
*Language: Spanish is the official language, but we found that English is spoken in all the stores in which we shopped.
*Proof of Citizenship: U.S. citizens need only a current U.S. passport, valid for six months after your date of entry.
*Fishing: Costa Rica is a fisherman’s dream, with snook (averaging 14 pounds), tarpon (averaging 80 pounds), red snapper, king mackerel, amberjack, yellow tail, deep-water tuna, Dorado, even sailfish and marlin. Fly fishermen will enjoy catching blue gill and drum fish. There’s good bonefishing as well.
*Resources: Costa Rica Tourism Board: 1-866-267-8274, or www.visitcostarica.com. For tips on senior travel, go to http://suddenlysenior.com/travelpage.html.