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Thursday, October 30, 2008

NEXT STOP--COSTA RICA




These days Costa Rica, nicknamed the “Switzerland of Central America” because of its tall mountains with slopes cradling lush vegetation, is a major sun destination, so it is with additional interest that Rob and I looked forward to the time here. We also booked a great shore excursion that included a 90 minute drive through the city and countryside, a gondola ride up through the forest canopy with commentary from a naturalist-guide, and a trip on an amazing jungle river. We were not disappointed.

Costa Rica is the second smallest republic in Central America. It’s narrow, and you can easily enjoy Pacific Ocean beaches as well as Caribbean beaches. It has magnificent rain forests. Only a few degrees from the Equator, the temperature throughout the year rarely moves more than 10° away from the norm of 89°. It has only two “seasons,” the rainy and the dry, and from what our naturalist-tour guide, Randall said, it can rain 15 days straight during the rainy season, and rainfall can reach 100 inches per year. On the other hand, when you think of the lush vegetation this climate engenders, you feel you’re traveling in a tropical paradise filled with magnificent, tall trees, brightly colored flowers, and jungle-rimmed rivers where crocodiles lazily sun themselves on the banks, iguanas gaze at the passing tourists with arrogant disinterest, and a plethora of birds fill the air with their sight and song.

Now through the Panama Canal and in the Pacific Ocean, our ship docked in Puntarenas, and for our tour we traveled in a Mercedes coach through the port village with its colorful shops and stands filled with all the souvenirs any tourist could desire. Randall gave us a running commentary on the history of Costa Rica and its democratic traditions including free education for all citizens. In school, English is mandatory. With these new opportunities for its citizens, Costa Rica has attracted businesses like Intel because there now exists a skilled workforce. Sounds a bit like Ireland, and look at their boom economy, the Celtic Tiger!

Our first stop was the Guacalilo Estuary where we boarded a covered shallow draft river cruiser to explore the ecological offerings of the Tárcoles River. In this country where the rain forests impact heavily on everything Costa Rican, there is a huge push at ecco-tourism so that visitors gain an understanding of the fragile interweaving of nature. The company Princess Cruises hires stresses the Save the Rainforest campaign, and their very knowledgeable guides point out changes in the ecological balance throughout their presentations.

The river cruise is extraordinary. We begin moving slowly along the shore of this brackish river, and our bus guide changes hats, slips on a field glass harness and we have a real expert on Costa Rican wildlife. BTW, guides are licensed in Costa Rica, and Randall is a college grad and extremely knowledgeable—and sharp eyed.



We see about 23 different species of birds, and Randall describes their habitats, unique qualities and notes if they are in any way endangered. He points out iguanas of all colors and shapes. He does the same with crocodiles and explains that of the many types of crocodiles that once existed, only about seven different types exist today. I loved seeing the birds, but I admit the crocs were incredibly exciting. They lie on shore almost camouflaged by the brown waters and sand.




They lie there, some absolutely mammoth and mean-looking, mouths open to breathe, and should they decide to stop posing for us and head to the water, they rise on their legs, looking quite ridiculous but still incredibly lethal. They move swiftly and smoothly—more swiftly than one would imagine of a reptile often more than eight feet in length can move—and they silently, stealthily, slip beneath the water leaving behind not so much as a ripple.




It’s utterly amazing. All we see are two bulging eyes and the end of a snout. We viewed this scene several times during the ride, but repetition did not diminish the dramatic spectacle.




Our boat went to the spot the river opens to the ocean, at which point we turned around and took another route back. We entered a man-made river carved out of the jungle years ago by a foreign corporation now long gone. The river has been maintained, and it offers a unique opportunity to travel into areas which would have been inaccessible to us. There we saw and heard the cries of howler monkeys high up in the trees. Their loud screeching echoed through the jungles as they leapt between trees. Seeing animals in their own habitats is incredibly exciting, and Rob and I have decided to investigate the possibilities of doing more eco-tourism.

After we returned to the dock, we boarded our coach for our journey to the Pacific Aerial Tram.


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