With its well-established system of national parks and protected areas, Costa Rica has since the mid-1990s been considered the poster child of eco-tourism. However, signs of the burgeoning growth of tourism abound. Manuel Antonio, the most popular national park in the country, has suffered from environmental decay and loss of habitat from too many visitors, raw sewerage being dumped into the Pacific, etc. We heard from every guide we encountered that this former crown jewel of the Costa Rica Pacific coast has turned into an island amidst uncontrolled and extensive growth. Species of monkeys and other animals that can’t merely fly away are further endangered as the gene pool continues to shrink. The guides consider a stint at Manuel Antonio a requirement to be endured, as they aspire to be employed in the misty Monteverde Cloud Rain Forest Preserve in the north, or the new jewel of the untouched primary rain forest, the Osa Peninsula.
I’ve experienced this dynamic of Discovery, Build-out, Exploitation and Decay in my home state of Florida for decades. My travels since the late 1970s have truly shown me how as few as three years can make the difference between experiencing a place, environments, people and cultures Before and After the airports or cruise ship terminals are built, the hoteliers take over the prime environments, and the rough-and-ready tracks are replaced by pavement and insidious development. Thus, in planning for our trip, I had determined to avoid the overly-trammeled tourist paths.
My travel mantra remains to experience the wild places before the rest of humanity and the inevitable hyper-growth catches up to these areas. So, my plans for our Costa Rica vacation had us driving from the airport in San Jose up to the cloud rain forests in the mountains near Monteverde, spending three days exploring the area, maybe glimpsing Arenal volcano from a distance, then driving back to San Jose to catch a short flight down to the off-the-grid Osa Peninsula, best described as a primitive paradise of rain forests, empty beaches, and backwater settlements.
We knew that this itinerary would entail a lot of hiking along steep rain forest trails, as compared to leisurely snorkeling or driving around tropical islands taking in fauna, flora, history and various cultures. And we weren’t disappointed! I had planned for guided night walks, zip lining and rappelling down waterfalls, so this trip would be less relaxation and more work-out but hey, you can always hang around and relax at home, right? Besides, the main goal was to spot a lot of wildlife and to be thoroughly steeped (once again) in a tropical rain forest– a favorite environment.
The driving out of and back into San Jose was as challenging as LA, Atlanta, Miami or Boston. There was the poor air quality, many, many trucks, lanes that came and went unexpectedly, a decided lack of road signage anywhere, noise, and really crazy drivers on motorbikes and in a variety of sh!tbox vehicles.
While I played road warrior, Robin gamely “navigated”, combing through printed Google maps at various scales, a country driving map provided by the rental car folks with indecipherable scribbles illustrating a short cut to the toll road out of the city, and Trip Advisor forum tips ranging from “Don’t even try this trip if you have less than 4 hrs to make it before dark!” (I made it in 2.5) to “Forget the rental, take the bus or hire a driver.
We actually enjoyed the trip once the traffic was behind us. We left the Pacific coast and started up the blindingly dusty gravel roads into the scenery of small farms, ranches and towns tucked into the steep mountain terrain.
The SUV kept us high enough to clear most of the boulders strewn across the twisting, steep and straight-drop-to-nowhere track as we crossed extremely gusty passes that rocked our boat and whipped up large dust-devils that obscured the view. Thank goodness for a new vehicle with working AC, but no re-circulation option meant we ate dust the whole way into Santa Elena. To add to the excitement, the loose footing meant we slid out on almost every hairpin and we seldom got above 25 mph. Not to mention the bone-jarring potholes and the sun glaring off the dusty windshield and the grimy inside of the windows. Challenging? Tiring? You bet.
IN SANTA ELENA
I was ready for a cold anything when we arrived at our little motel-like digs, tucked down yet another dusty, potholed “street” in a sketch part of a sketch town, above the dusty little backpacker berg of Santa Elena. But the tiki bar in the tiny eating area was closed (at 6pm??), so we got a nice hot cup of coffee, which failed to refresh. Still. We were here, so off to town we drove, looking for a spot of chow.
We ended up eating at a diner-like affair on the main drag, which was paved with bricks that slumped into large potholes. The place offered “tipical” fare, which is typically rather dull.
Robin learned that night that “beef” in this part of the country at least, was lacking in flavor and chew-ability. I figured the chicken is always a smart choice, when traveling to Central America destinations, and was rewarded with a meal I could tolerate, but barely. Subsequent tacos where the backpackers hung out was the smartest move, and the location for the coldest beer too, ha.
We spent the next two days and one night hike exploring the cloud rain forest of the Monteverde national preserve and a nearby private property with extensive trails and wildlife viewing. See our photos for a genuine sense of this portion of the trip!
The cool, windy, misty and mysterious cloud forest was hauntingly beautiful, and because we arrived early in the morning, we were treated to a rare sighting of a mated pair of Resplendent Quetzals. We paused for quite some time to watch the male busily digging out a nesting hole in a dead tree. The best shot I could get was the male’s resplendent tail feathers poking out of the hole and jiggling with the vigor of his efforts.
The next night we were delighted with all the critters we saw during a two hour guided night hike through rain forest trails.We spotted coatimundis, an aguti, an anteater sleeping in the fork of a tree,
OFF THE GRID
A special, serendipitous experience began with our decision to go down a track way off the grid (seriously, even Google maps is clueless), past a “Closed- turn back” sign which we ignored “Hey this road looks traveled– uh, mostly”. That track was hands-down the most challenging, painful and exhausting driving at 15mph I have ever done but the scenery was spectacular and the payoff at the end of this hour jaunt was this magical old homestead-cum-hostel carved out of the rain forest on top of a steep ridge with a spectacular view of Arenal volcano and the lake at its base.
We were met by two playful kittens as we painfully hauled ourselves out of the dust-covered SUV. The panorama view pulled us to the edge of the grassy parking area and a steep drop off. The rain forest rolled away toward the massive volcano, pitching down sheer ravines and covering the steep series of ridges. Waterfalls cut through the wall of green in the distance, glinting in the afternoon light. The wind at this elevation (likely 6,000 ft) was cool and steady, with gusts enough to blow my ball cap away.
The only sounds were the wind, rain forest birds, and the swishing of the landscaped greenery around the property.
The kittens cavorted while we took photos. Only after taking in the sights did we turn our attention to the lodge-like structure behind us. Heavily constructed of massive logs, the place stretched out across the cleared hilltop, offering plate glass windows to the view before us.
I smelled wood smoke as we entered the arched, high-ceiling entryway, went down a short flight of stone steps, and walked the length of the cavernous dining area. A couple was seated at one of the tables, enjoying the incredible view.
I approached a solid wooden counter at the end of the room and saw a huge fireplace behind the counter and a stack of large logs that looked like a wood pile for some serious stoves. And sure enough, I could see into the industrial-sized food prep area to my left and there were two men, chopping away on greens and veggies on long metal trestle tables. Behind them open wood burning ovens were glowing away, coughing clouds of smoke back down the chimney and into the area with each gust of wind outside.
The atmosphere was so, well, atmospheric! The prevailing quiet, interrupted by the chopping and the sounds of gusting winds buffeting the building– the smoke, the rasp of a heavy wooden chair across the stone floor as Robin sat down at a table behind me— it was all so weirdly transporting. I felt like time hit Pause for five seconds. What a tranquil, timeless kind of place.
The spell of course was broken as our host ambled out and asked in Spanish if we’d like to eat. A brief confab ensued, with Robin leading the way in her capable Spanish to the conclusion that there was little on offer and we’d be taking pot luck. Or, as our host described it, a “tipical” meal, which we were grateful for, having eaten little that morning besides a scrambled egg and squashed protein bars retrieved from our backpacks.
While we waited for lunch to be served, I repaired to a couch nearby, joined by the kittens, who wore themselves out playing, then settled down in my lap for a snooze. The quiet descended again, and the smoky stillness of the airless room started to lull me to sleep until I got up to open a couple of windows high above the plate glass expanse to let in some of that invigorating mountain air.
Following our meal, we buckled in and buckled down for the return trip to Santa Elena, back up and down that killer, twisting, slippery, rutted track. The forest soon engulfed us but was broken here and there by open vistas of incredibly steep pastures dotted with trees and tangled underbrush. Not a cow or horse, donkey or mountain goat in sight. I couldn’t imagine spending a day on a small horse, struggling up and down those pitches chasing up cattle. What a hardscrabble life the rural farmers and ranchers must lead!
Back to our little, high-ceiling room at the Monteverde Mountain Lodge, with its lovely, dusty landscaped garden area, the noise of construction from a third floor addition, the incessant racket of muffler-less motorcycles at all hours, the barking dogs throughout the night, and the sound of the wind slamming against the building. We slept with windows closed, earplugs in and a small fan blowing the dust around the room and into our sinuses, eyes, ears, luggage and any drink left uncapped.
TO THE OSA
We were glad to take our leave after three days in Santa Elena and head back to noisome San Jose, getting lost and tangled in city traffic, making our way back to the rental car place, and catching a small but beautifully appointed plane, us the only passengers, down to Puerto Jimenez on the Osa Peninsula.
At the tiny airstrip next to the graveyard in the noisy, crowded, dusty town, we were met by our driver, who carefully placed our bags in the bed of the pickup and covered them with a tarp as a nominal dust cover. Now we faced what we well knew to be an hour-long, truly bone-jarring ride down yet another dusty, god-awful road through ranching and teak wood-growing country.
The scenery was pleasantly distracting, with the Golfo Dulce to our left framed by high mountains, and the flat farming terrain to our right, bordered by towering rain forest hills folding back to the western horizon. Even so, it was difficult to see a lot through the blur of the jouncing and thumping, and taking photos was completely out of the question. We just endured and tried to chat up our driver, who was shy due to his lack of English. Robin was in the back seat gritting her teeth to protect her tongue and my Spanish is beyond desultory, so it was a non-chatty drive.
The fun part was the road-guard Capuchin monkey, whose image resolved out of the dust as we approached a section of canopy road. It sat facing us, and as the truck slowly approached, it hiked itself up on all fours and bared its teeth– a clear warning to stop. We laughed and, suspecting it was holding traffic for its family to cross, we looked up into the trees overhead and sure enough, five more monkeys were making their way down a tree. The road-guard glanced at them, then glared at us, teeth bared, then glanced at them again. I half expected it to motion “hurry up there!” to the troop, who eventually crossed quickly right behind the guard.
With one last glare and teeth-baring, the road-guard jumped across the road, following the troop, and we resumed our trek, amused and thankful for the short break from our rough ride.
IN THE RAIN FOREST
el Remanso was our home-away for the next five days and boy, it was worth every strained muscle in our backs and necks to experience this paradisiacal unspoiled, wild place.
Some folks choose their vacation spots for the food, or to be pampered, or just to relax. We tend towards the “active” vacation experience. I’m deeply grateful that Robin is more adventure-minded, gathering experiences vs, say, souvenirs. As hard as she works, she deserves some pampering or just hanging out by a pool but she’s game for hiking her butt off, sweating buckets, eating unknown and perhaps not-great food at unpredictable times, sleeping on mattresses that are more park bench than not, or being awakened at the barest crack of dawn by the startling, abrupt and incredibly loud Howler monkey calls right outside the cabin.
Things like the probability of running into the fer-de-lance, the most dangerous snake in Costa Rica, or falling off a steep trail or a zip line or on rappel may give her pause but she is a brave and tenacious fellow traveler! Of course before we went I didn’t tell her that the reason the fer-de-lance has such a fearsome reputation is that many people are bitten because of its association with human habitation and that many bites actually occur indoors. Kinda like I didn’t tell her a lot about Australia’s enormous variety of toxic and venomous creatures before we slept in the open (no screens, no doors) in the rain forest of Tropical North Queensland.
All this to say that I respect and admire Robin’s willingness to undertake these journeys rather than insisting on a vacation of pampering or even just relaxing. We have done some pretty adventurous stuff and I guess our activities this trip certainly added to the list. Plus, Robin delighted and surprised me with her willingness to undertake rappelling down waterfalls in the rain forest, no less. I am very proud of Robin’s stamina, strength of character, determination, and the extreme focus she brings when it’s Game On and time to learn how to do something on the fly, depending on your sense of balance, timing, and paying close attention to things like thorny plants, army ant columns, snakes, scorpions, spiders and slippery and dangerous footing.
I could wax on about the el Remanso property, the awesome staff, the incredible logistics challenges they face daily to just keep the place running way out there on the tip of the Osa, way far from any hospital or store or easy access to even get in and out of that area. It’s most definitely for the fit, outdoors wildlife peeps, the adventurous, the hearty and hale.
If it’s dawn yoga or a spa treatment you seek, this ain’t it. But they do have a fantastic yoga platform just off one of the many winding gravel paths that snake throughout the property, as well as a lovely massage area quite secluded but where one has a stunning view of the ocean way down there through a gap in the forest canopy. But we saw nobody using those services.
What we did see, and hear, and experience on many levels was the never-ending parade of wild animals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds galore.
We could hear them moving in the forest canopy, shuffling or darting along the forest floor– even whipping past (a bat just missed hitting me in the ear one dusk- I actually felt the wind from its wings.) We observed critters sleeping, hunting, mating, nesting, rooting and just going about their business. We could smell the musk and piss from the monkey troops overhead and just upwind. We spotted deer and peccary tracks at the edges of creeks, and coati and ground-dwelling bird tracks in the moist beach sand.
We felt the salt air from the ocean shore and the mists rising from rushing waterfalls, and the cold water flowing over our feet as we carefully stayed to the center of the river’s flow to avoid snakes on either bank. Sweat poured down our arms and dripped off our fingertips in the 100% humidity hovering over the riverbed during one night walk, way deep in a ravine, cut off from any breezes.
And yes a fer-de-lance made an appearance, darting under our night river walk guide’s boot. Rinaldo the guide didn’t spot it but I happened to be watching for snakes in the circle of my flashlight and warned Rinaldo to stop. Later we got an eye level close-up view of a non-venomous green snake stretched out on the limb of a small tree, bent on getting to the two small birds eggs in a nest mere inches away.
What I didn’t miss were man-made sounds. The rain forest was all-encompassing, all-present, and spending an entire afternoon walking trails quietly or sitting on the deck and just listening and watching, was all the conversation anyone needed.
The new moon hadn’t made its appearance so the nights were draped in absolutely black night skies, the stars bright as diamonds on display, the planets shimmering and the satellites barely moving, if at all. We’d turn off all lights in our cabina and in minutes the show was on. Some nights I hated to go to bed but the daily dawn chorus and an at-first-light hike with guides were typically waiting, and we needed our rest to get through the heat, humidity, and just plain day-long workout hikes.
LISTEN to my interview for the travel podcast “Experiences You Should Have” about this amazing rain forest experience!
We visited in-between seasons, so what few guests we saw (maybe 10 toward the end of the week- the place accommodates 31) were other couples, some younger than us, some older. Several were semi-pro bird watchers, there was one pro photographer hired by the management to gather shots for marketing. There were no children in tow.
As the owner and his wife explained, most visitors are there for the outdoor activities, the wildlife, and being in the rain forest. Many learn of this magical place by word of mouth. Still, el Remanso has earned the Trip Advisor 2016 Choice Award, consistently gets 5 star reviews, and people like Bear Grylls and other TV animal kingdom and critter show producers discovered this place some years ago. It won’t be long before Travel & Leisure does a piece that brings this area to the attention of a lot more travelers, but for now the sheer pain of getting there keeps the hoards at bay.
I hope they never pave that hellish road leading in or that’s the beginning of the end.
Again I point to our photos with captions and the videos on my YouTube channel Costa Rica playlist as well worth the time, if you want to experience these places vicariously. I’ve worked hours to edit shots and videos and welcome the opportunity to share with friends and family. Please feel free to comment on photos or videos too!
Costa Rica is definitely a place to visit time and again. We have quite a few friends who have a long history visiting and some who are planning to retire there–that’s a whole different topic. But as such magical places become easier to access and the tourist numbers keep growing exponentially, there will be changes, and in my experience few of them are good.
If you do your homework on Costa Rica, you’ll discover why this tiny country may have a real shot at avoiding the worst of the negative effects of a shrinking globe, population pressures and attendant problems, greedy developers, corrupt officials, infrastructure collapse, pollution and the whole ball of wax. Sure they have challenges, such as the Taiwanese mafia holed up in Puntarenas and manning fleets of illegal shark finning boats, poachers trawling the national marine parks, turtle egg poachers, wildlife poachers, etc. But I prefer to look at the potential of the majority of ticos and maybe even some of the ex-pats to continue to lead the way, raise voices, and raise hell to protect the future of this achingly beautiful slice of Central America. Pura Vida!