Seduced and sated in Costa Rica

J. Kingston Pierce describes the overwhelmingly rich variety of bird, plant, animal and insect life encountered on a eco-cruise along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

By J. Kingston Pierce
Published April 21, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"See what he's doing over there?"

It takes me a moment to realize that Mario Olmos, our faithful guide through the rain forests of western Costa Rica, is pointing a finger in my direction. And even then, I'm too busy to contemplate why I should suddenly be so interesting. After more than an hour of slogging through humid jungle, beneath a foliage canopy so dense that it blocks out all but the most tenacious of the sun's rays, I am finally enjoying a moment's rest, leaning against a skinny tree while I frantically suck every last molecule of moisture from my too-small canteen.

"He's obviously never heard of poison-arrow frogs," Mario tells the other dozen or so members of our group. "They're often bright in color -- yellow, red, blue. Indians in this area used their deadly poison on the tips of their arrows. And, by the way," he concludes, an arch smile plucking up the corners of his mouth, "they tend to hide beneath the bark of trees around here."

Now, I can't truthfully say that I moved faster at this moment than I ever have in my life (that record still belongs to the time I was forced to dodge rapid-fire punches from a justly jealous husband who'd cornered me in an office hallway). But there is certainly no question that were it not for several fellow day-hikers who stood unwittingly in my path, my desperate leap from that tree might have carried me over our trail and nose-first into the forest floor on the opposite side. There's nothing quite like the threat of imminent poisoning in a foreign land to get one's adrenaline pumping ...

I'm more than halfway through a seven-day eco-touring cruise along Costa Rica's Pacific edge, one of 60 passengers who departed this country's former pearling port of Puntarenas aboard a small vessel operated by Miami-based Temptress Voyages. And by this time, I am exhausted. Drained by the heat. Compelled to swallow copious quantities of beer and the local firewater, guaro, -- for medicinal purposes only, of course, a hedge against the thorough depletion of my essential bodily fluids.

Whoever wrote the slick brochures describing this cruise as "semi-luxurious" must have been inspired by the Lucullan meals that the ship's crew serves three times a day, or by the impromptu nightly parties on the upper lounge deck, or maybe by the ready availability of scuba, fishing and water-skiing equipment. What those pamphlets don't mention is that in order to fully appreciate the arboreal diversity that awaits me during this voyage, I must rise each and every morning at an obscenely early hour. Since the birds and beasts can't sleep in, I'm not allowed to, either.

So, each day I roll out of my bed in the dark, hurl myself in the approximate direction of my cabin's shower, then sit down for a breakfast of fried rice and beans and fruit, or just grab a mug of the potent local java, and the next thing I know, I'm sliding from a Zodiac raft into the bracing Pacific surf to follow Mario or one of the ship's other keen-eyed naturalists through some new and steamy forest preserve. Remembering only at the last minute that I have left my bug repellent -- my sole defense against voracious swarms of sand flies (aka no-see-ums) -- behind on my night stand. Uh-oh ...

Today we have stopped to study the palm groves and mangrove bogs -- and, of course, the poisonous frogs -- of Corcovado National Park, 75 miles north of the Panama border. Due to its remoteness, Corcovado isn't heavily visited. Yet it is among the most beguiling of this nation's numerous wild parks, inhabited by 116 species of amphibians and reptiles, 139 varieties of mammals and 400 different breeds of birds -- including macaws, those emperors of the air that so vainly display their Day-Glo plumage at every opportunity.

Unfortunately, I am no longer capable of appreciating such zoological redundancy. After five days of marches across primeval hill slopes, kayak journeys down languid jungle streams and sea excursions amid ragged battalions of green turtles, I am feeling more than a little bit jaded toward animal sightings. Costa Rica is like some vastly overgrown wildlife theme park, Barnumesque in its agglomeration of exotica. Though it occupies less than .0003 percent of Earth's land area, the country is said to contain around 5 percent of all known species of flora and fauna. Nights here provide a raga of creaturely calls. Walking a jungle trail, you're prone to stumble upon packs of glistening beetles moving like compact oil slicks from one side of a path to the other. Every breeze seems redolent of orchids or tree ferns or just the mustiness of decay that is integral to a rain forest's evolutionary cycle.

I had once worried that I might be bored by Costa Rica, because it doesn't possess the abundant pre-Columbian or colonial sites that draw me to Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. Ha! Instead, I find my brain and senses overstimulated by this nation's boundless permutations of nature -- to the point that my initial thrill at listening for the clamorous cackling of toucans at Curz National Wildlife Refuge or watching coatimundi (like large raccoons with panda eye rings) perform death-defying leaps between trees at Manuel Antonio National Park has been replaced by an almost weary expectation of the outlandish, the astonishing, the unbelievable at every turn. Any moment now, I expect some top-hatted huckster to leap out of a fungus patch and announce, "This way to the opera-singing, three-headed jaguar." It wouldn't faze me for a moment.

Three-toed sloths? I've already studied more than my share of those torpid tree-huggers here, all of them looking like clumps of moldy gray moss in the high branches. Two-meter-long iguanas? The trick is distinguishing them from their native camouflage; once I have that down, they seem to occupy every other sun-scorched boulder. Black howler monkeys? Despite their imposing size (they may weigh up to 10 pounds), they're not particularly aggressive, and their stentorian roars make them easy to track. And butterflies? Costa Rica boasts 1,100 brilliantly hued species, some patterned like zebras, others metallic gold or orange-striped, and the most sought-after -- the large morphos -- decorating the jungle canopy with flashes of neon blue. Stand almost any place in the Costa Rican outback, and a kaleidoscopic range of these insects is likely to stagger by.

But just when I think I've seen everything, Costa Rica tosses a brand new wonder in front of my eyes -- a coiled fer-de-lance, say, one of Central America's most belligerent snakes, with a venom that dissolves nerve tissue and destroys blood cells; or something more benign, like a chartreuse procession of leaf-cutter ants returning to their colony with a day's haul of compost held high over their heads. One afternoon, I spent several hours enraptured simply by the sight of hundreds of soldier crabs methodically dissecting a hamburger lunch left accidentally on a beach, their adopted and polychromatic shells flooding over the meal like Hannibal's army conquering ancient Cannae.

That image returns unbidden to my mind in the evening following our visit
to Corcovado. I'm seated at a rather out-of-the-way table on the open-air
lounge deck of our ship, re-reading Gabriel García Márquez's "Love in the
Time of Cholera," hoping that this tale of unrequited passion will put me
in the proper languorous mood to appreciate Costa Rica. And from the corner
of my eye, I can periodically observe my fellow passengers as they
teem -- just like those crabs -- about the buffet dinner tables, picking over
the fresh fruits and fragrant seafoods that are so much a part of any
Central American adventure, all the tables a conflict of colors, their reds
and yellows and greens mixed together, the seep and ooze of juices
everywhere. Pigments compete, too, in the attire of dinner guests. Men
sport big-flowered yahoo wear that they'd never be caught dead donning back
in Seattle or Boston or Berlin. Women sashay about in bright skirts short
enough to show off newly tanned thighs, a light sweat rivering between
their breasts.

"Is anyone sitting here?"

Retreating from my reverie, I find Mario the guide at my shoulder, barely
balancing an overloaded plate of food in one hand, a drink in the other.

In his early 30s, glib, with a flashing grin in a clean-shaven
face, Mario is a native Costa Rican -- or Tico, as they're known.
Educated in biology at New Orleans' Tulane University, he shares with this
ship's other naturalists an intense concern for his country's environmental
riches. But he also claims fluency in 120 different bird calls, and it's
amazing to follow him through a forest as he imitates whistles, beckoning
birds with what can only be described as the avian equivalent of
come-hither lines, waiting for shrill answering notes, eventually coaxing
the love-struck critters into the open. Such an affinity does Mario have
with Earth's winged tribes, you'd swear he wears polo shirts only to cover
up his feathers.

After some small talk about this day's adventures, I ask Mario how Costa
Rica has managed to maintain such varied ecosystems, particularly its
tropical rain forests.

"Well, we haven't always been so lucky," he begins, speaking around bites
of chicken, guava and passion fruit. Mario tells me that 400 years ago,
most of Costa Rica was lush with ancient tropical forests. But that was
before Spanish interlopers, and later farmers and ranchers, started
torching vast wooded tracts. Once cleared, the land made fine cattle
pasture, and beginning in the 19th century, its volcanic soil nurtured
domesticated crops of bananas and coffee beans.

Even that far back in time, Mario says,
some folks mourned the disappearance of Costa Rica's primitive habitats, but they were
powerless to stop it. Even botanists often turned a blind eye. In 1861, a
British naturalist named Osbert Salvin, enchanted by tales of iridescently
plumed quetzals, determined to resolve whether those green-and-red birds
were flesh or folklore. When he finally found one, he immediately shot it,
hauled it back to Europe and created a fashion craze for quetzal feathers
that helped decimate the bird's population in Central America.

However, Mario explains, since the 1970s Costa Rica has come to protect a
larger proportion of its virgin lands than any other country.
Although about 318 square miles of tropical forest continue to vanish
annually here, 27 percent of the land remains wooded. This preservation
campaign began for ecological reasons, but it has since earned business
backing. Travelers, anxious to jump aboard today's eco-touring bandwagon and
increasingly in search of unfettered destinations, have quadrupled Costa
Rican visits over the last decade, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars
into the nation's coffers annually and making tourism the new dominant industry.

"The problem now is that tourists may be loving Costa Rica to death,"
Mario says. "They're a physical and financial strain on the national parks,
and they attract hotel developers. Those developers don't understand that
people come here primarily for environmental reasons. If they wanted to lie
on a beach and get a tan, they could go to Mexico. We don't want Costa Rica
to become another Acapulco."

That was nearly the fate of Caño Island, to which we sail on the final full
day of our coastal reconnaissance.

Now a 120-acre biological preserve, located 10.5 miles west of Corcovado,
Caño was planned in the early 1970s as the site for an international
megaresort, a project that was scrapped only under pressure from biologists
and college activists. Builders had hoped to delight guests with this
isle's white-sand beaches and coral reefs, rife with tuna, groupers and
manta rays -- ideal for scuba divers or snorkelers. They weren't so sensitive
to commercialization's potential toll on local boa constrictors, turtles
and hummingbirds. The project would have meant clearing away much of Caño's
rain forest, including its strangler figs, those bizarre trees
that actually grow on and around older trees, eventually choking the host
until it perishes and rots away, leaving the fig behind with a hollow core.

Development on Caño might also have destroyed some of the burial grounds
here, along with the artifacts that give this spot its mysterious

Only a small group of us come ashore, the hard-core explorers. Just off
the beach, we enter a forest that grows progressively more dense, darker,
like some Brothers Grimm vision of a woodland, rife with the skeletal
scaffolding of strangler figs but with its underbrush thinly scattered. The
whole place is inordinately quiet when compared to the other preserves
through which we've trod on this trip. Hundreds of years ago, I recall from
my reading, indigenous mainland tribes paddled out to Caño to deposit their
dead. They believed that the clouds and lightning congregating over this
island were somehow instrumental in transporting their loved ones to a
higher plane of existence. Evidence of those natives' passage still remains
in artifacts unearthed over the years by archaeologists -- bits of pottery,
broken pestles, short-legged stone tables on which corn may once have been
ground, all arranged in little cairns beside the main trail.

And then there are the stone spheres, or bolas.

Conventional wisdom has it that these balls, found in large numbers at
several locations around Costa Rica, held religious significance for early
nomadic tribes. But Erich von Däniken, who gained fleeting fame during the
Nixon years with his books that posited alien visitations to Earth
over the centuries, suggested in "Gods From Outer Space" that the
bolas -- some of which are several feet in diameter -- "are directly
linked with the visit of unknown intelligences, of intelligences who landed
on our planet in a ball," inspiring indigenous peoples to create these
stone tributes to their starships.

Far-fetched? Maybe. Probably. Almost surely.

Almost ...

Which all goes toward explaining why there are photos circulating of me
seated atop one of those bolas, my eyes shut, my breathing slowed, my
hands cupped upward as if waiting for divine intervention. I have never
been a believer in tales of alien visitations or quick excursions to
advanced stages of enlightenment. But after some of the remarkable things
I've encountered on this trip, well, you just never know.

J. Kingston Pierce

J. Kingston Pierce is a Seattle writer whose work has appeared in Travel and Leisure, Historic Traveler and Seattle magazine. He's also the author of "San Francisco Your History!" (Sasquatch Books) and "America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett" (KQED Books).

MORE FROM J. Kingston Pierce

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Latin America Travel