Zip-lining on a slim cable through the treetop canopy of a tropical rainforest can bring unexpected consequences. On the positive side, the high-flying adrenalin rush can make a person feel liberated from gravity and supremely confident. On the other hand … well, I guess I can say the experience nearly killed me.
The zip-lining itself isn’t very dangerous. With strong cables and abundant security checks, this may be one of the safest action sports on earth. Rather, the problem occurred when I simply touched the handrail of an arboreal platform. I hadn’t noticed a poisonous palm-pit viper 10 inches to my left, poised and ready to strike. It’s one of the deadliest snakes in Central America, yet I’d almost put my hand right down on it.
I leapt straight backward to avoid getting bitten, nearly knocking over three other participants coming up the path behind me. Fortunately, in the mid-day heat, this cold-blooded reptile must have been cat-napping, or rather, snake-napping. We stood still as I steadily took a photo and waited for the eco-tourism guide to catch up.
The guide confirmed that the snake was extremely venomous as he picked up a hefty branch. I assumed he was going use the stout stick to nudge the snake off its wooden perch into the steep valley below. Instead, he hammered the lime green serpent with serious intent. So much for preservation of the ecology.
I grew more annoyed when a young man in the group picked up the seemingly dead critter to dangle it teasingly near the face of a young miss. I reminded him that viper jaws have been known to reflexively bite even up to two hours after they’ve been declared decisively deceased — or so I’d heard. That stopped his game.
It was a sobering reminder that the wilds of Costa Rica should be respected as much for their native life forms as for their majestic scenery. In a nation that carries natural biodiversity to extremes, danger and beauty seem to go hand in hand.
Cocoa, coffee and orchids
Sensational white-water rafting, kayaking over rapids and canyoning up waterfalls can teach you that, but not every Costa Rican activity seemed to require such a strong measure of caution. Or so I thought.
“Exploring cocoa, coffee and orchid plantations, taking a jungle boat ride, visiting a rainforest research station, horse riding in the highlands or enjoying a wide range of local cuisines are more gentle pursuits,” I was advised by Evelyn Obando, who was visiting from the north of Costa Rica.
“In a single week,” she added, “it’s possible to experience them all.”
My zip-line adventure crossing 14 tree-mounted platforms was at a recreational property called Colinas del Poás, downhill from Poás Volcano National Park, which, Obando explained, is “home to the second largest crater in the world, slightly over a mile in diameter and still active.”
Within Poás crater lies an incredibly blue-green lagoon, similar in some ways to Oregon’s own Crater Lake, but smaller. Unfortunately, on the day I was there, a heavy layer of white, misty clouds prevented seeing it from any distance. At that time, visitors could often walk all the way to the edge of the main crater, but in recent years the park has frequently been closed due to explosive eruptions.
Instead, I had to content myself wandering through giant elephant ear leaves, which, Obando informed me, “are also known as a ‘poor man’s umbrella,’ since one leaf held aloft can easily keep you dry in a rainstorm.”
From Poás I headed northeast into the Sarapiquí region that borders Nicaragua. Along the journey, we sometimes saw colorfully painted traditional oxcarts, still in use on farms and ranches, but considered now to be national treasures.
Taking a hit
At La Selva Biological Station, a protected area encompassing hundreds of acres of low-land tropical rain forest, a student researcher acquainted me with some of the local wildlife that shares their jungle location. The first creatures he pointed out were marching up and down a nearby tree.
“The amazing thing about leafcutter ants,” he said, “is not how they turn pieces of leaves into fungus for food, but their social organization.”
He pointed out tiny “minim“ ants riding on the backs or heads of much larger soldier ants. “Their job is to protect the bigger worker ants by being a sacrificial target for parasitic phorid flies, which try to lay eggs into crevices on the larger ants’ heads. The flies instead attack the tiny ants, who literally take a hit for their bigger brethren, and for the good of the colony.”
Just then, an animal that looked like a hairy miniature black pig came sniffing along the grass. It was cute and ugly at the same time. “That’s a collar peccary,” the student said. “They’re wild, but quite friendly, coming in and out of our camp at will.”
More creatures gathered on the banks of a nearby river. From a slow-moving boat, we spotted crocodile-like caymans, slow crawling iguanas and basilisk lizards, grotesque bare-throated tiger herons, and Anhinga birds standing motionless in the sun drying their outstretched silver and black wings.
A sustainable way to harvest rainforest bounty was demonstrated at Heliconia del Caribe, a 74-acre tropical flower farm that exports its blossoms to markets around the world. Manager James Anderson walked me through several kilometers of lush gardens with some odd but fascinating varieties.
“You’re staring at this Heliconia Vellerigera,” he commented, “and I don’t blame you. It’s nicknamed Hairy Heliconia, and it looks as much like an animal or insect as it does like a plant.”
Another spectacular bloom is the Emperor’s Torch Ginger, a large red flower sometimes called a “porcelain tulip.” It produces no fruit, but is sweet enough to attract legions of small black insects into the folds of its broad, plastic-like petals.
We later crossed what is said to be the longest sway bridge in Central America in order to reach a cacao bean plantation at Tirimbina Rainforest Center. This time, I was more careful about touching the handrail as our guide pointed out bullet ants that were using the bridge as a crossing as well.
“They’re called bullet ants because if they sting you,” he said, “it hurts like being shot by a bullet. Some consider it to be the world’s most venomous insect. We also call it ‘24-hour ant,’ as 24 hours of intense pain follow a sting.”
Amazonian Indians weave these toxic ants into straw gloves that young initiates have to wear for 10 excruciating minutes on 20 aching occasions before they are accepted into tribal manhood.
Paella and chocolate
Also at Tirimbina, a cacao plantation produces true rainforest chocolate. During a hands-on demonstration, we crushed the cooked beans, stirred in powdered cane sugar mixed with spicy chili, and drank hot cups of 100% pure dark liquid chocolate, the most intense I’ve ever tasted.
Flavors were the focus at several other Costa Rican locations as well. Just outside San Jose City, chef Vincente Cerero is operating La Lluna de Valencia Restaurant, offering gigantic platters of paella accompanied by lively Flamenco musicians and dancers up on a raised stage.
In San Jose itself, the neoclassical National Theater was a beautiful reminder of century-old European architectural influences. Even in this city environment, however, we were warned to take care at night and not wander far from the hotel. It seems Costa Rica’s urban jungles have their own share of cautions.
Life felt far more relaxed in the countryside. At the Finca Rosa Blanca coffee plantation and hotel, chef Jose Pedro taught us how to make tamales rolled in banana leaves. And in Turrialba County near another major volcano, chef Carlos Aguilar at Hotel Casa Turire prepared treats that included a tower of two steaks atop a column of potatoes, and a luscious chicken lemon-cream soup.
Behind Casa Turire, which may well be Costa Rica’s finest classical-style resort, hotel director Eduardo Lanaspa proudly pointed out a substantial lake.
“On it you see floating islands of water vegetation that change position as the current moves them,” he said. “Around the circumference, it’s possible to explore this area either by rowboat, by mountain bikes, or on horseback riding across the surrounding hills.”
As should be obvious from all these activities, Costa Rica can be an energizing and fun-filled destination. At the same time, it’s not like visiting a thrill-ride theme park where each “pretend adventure” is guaranteed safe, or nearly so.
In these rainforests, you have to remain constantly aware of your environment and keep your senses sharp, even as you enjoy the multitude of pleasures, both exciting and serene, that Costa Rica has to offer.
If you go: Visit the Costa Rica Tourist Board website at visitcostarica.com.