by Philip Greenspun

Home : Travel : Costa Rica : One Part

Saturday, January 20, 1995

We flew out of Tortuguero in the morning in a Cessna 180 that looked decidedly old and downmarket after the Piper Twin. The flight was beautiful and this time I "checked" the yellow river that Edgar had mentioned. We also saw the highway that we'd taken on the way back from rafting the Pacuare. Costa Rica is one rugged country and the only way to fully appreciate it is from the air. We changed planes in San Jose and picked up another single-engine Cessna for the flight to Carate. We climbed away from the local airport, over shantytowns and estates, then coffee plantations, and then stripped hillsides with cabins. The Central Valley has many charms, but not much wilderness remains.

Once we were at 6500 feet cruising over the mountains, one could see some primary forest broken up by ugly gashes. Each gash was a naked clearing with a cabin, a dirt road that looked impassable, and a few felled trees left lying.

"It is an unfortunate part of the Costa Rican character that you aren't a man unless you've cleared some rainforest," Bobby Coto had told us. This was quite evident from the air.

We followed the Pacific coast and the pilot pointed out Manuel Antonio National Park, large oil palm plantations and then the Osa Peninsula, which was our destination. When we touched down on the gravel airstrip at Carate, it occurred to me that in 90 minutes of flying in a tiny Cessna, we'd gone from the extreme northeast to the extreme southwest of the country. Costa Rica is only about four times the size of Massachusetts and one fifth the size of Colorado.

Check the map of Corcovado (95K)
Downtown Carate proved to be a pulperia next to the airstrip. The nearest telephone is in Puerto Jiménez, a 90 minute drive around the coast over a dirt road.

Urbano, a 45-year-old with a face that had been weathered in the hot dry sun of Guanacaste, loaded our bags into a pony cart. Lana, a blonde from Colorado and manager of the Corcovado Tent Camp, accompanied us down the beach past shanties.

"There used to be real houses back in there," Lana explained. "Before this was a park a lot of people were mining gold here."

A park ranger drove by in a jeep, right past a woman carrying a shovel.

"You aren't supposed to drive on the beach," Lana said. "And you aren't supposed to dig for gold anymore, but it happens. Anyway, the land back here is owned by a rich Canadian. He didn't want these people living on his land. On the other hand, there is a doctrine in Costa Rica that the first 25 meters back from the beach are public property, so it wasn't really his land. Of course, you aren't supposed to build a house on public land either, but these people had been living there for more than seven years and there is another law that says if you've been living somewhere for seven years then the land becomes yours. There was a huge lawsuit."

How did it all work out?

"I was coming up the beach one day and I saw hundreds of government troops with rifles burning the houses," Lana answered. "Obviously the Canadian owner had talked to the right people. It was a circus. I was taking pictures and one of the guys with a gun came up to me and demanded my film. I argued with him for awhile, but eventually handed it over. A guy who works in the lodge came running through the woods and was taking pictures from the other side. He stepped out of his sandals and was looking through the camera. He stepped back into his sandals without looking and right onto a fer-de-lance [the most aggressive and poisonous snake in Costa Rica]. I eventually got my film back a few months later."

The beach near Corcovado is lined with almond trees and these are much favored by scarlet macaws, some of the most beautiful parrots in the world. We saw at least 40 birds during the 45-minute walk to the tent camp. They were invariably in pairs, flying side by side or feeding in impossibly twisted orientations in the almond trees. I asked Lana about them.

"They live about 30 or 40 years and the adults have no predators," Lana explained.

There are demonstrations for every conceivable cause practically every day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rainforest preservation just seemed like yet another entry in a long list of liberal grievances to me. Besides, it was tough to imagine what I as an American could do about rainforests that were thousands of miles away. Something kind of clicked (snapped?) in my brain, though, as I watched the scarlet macaws.

Parrots are as intelligent as dogs, but we don't share body language with them as we do with dogs. ["They understand our language," Diane Ewing was later to say to me, "but we don't understand theirs."] They form complex communities and marriages between individuals that last decades. The abundance of parrots in the New World was one of its most salient features to early European explorers. In fact, a proposed name for the continents was "Land of Parrots."

By the time we'd reached the tents, cutting down the parrots' habitat seemed to me just as evil as going over to a neighborhood in Boston and burning all the houses down. What right had we to destroy these communities of magnificent lords of the forest?

After we settled into our charming little tent, replete with flowers and clean towels, we went for a swim in the warm Pacific. The surf was pounding, though, and visibility poor. After the swim, we lunched with Jeffrey De Vito, a Californian with a religious zeal for taking tourists up into the rainforest canopy.

The rainforest canopy was pretty much ignored for the first few hundred years of exploration. Somebody eventually got the brilliant idea that the most action would logically be where there was the most light, i.e., up in the canopy. One biologist intensively sprayed area of the canopy with insecticide then counted all of the dead stuff that fell to the ground. Donald Perry was among the first biologists to take a direct approach: actually go up into the canopy and observe.

Jeffrey has built a platform in the canopy of some virgin rainforest just behind the tent camp and adjacent to Corcovado National Park.

"All of our financing is private," Jeffrey noted. "Costa Rica is at a crucial point right now. In the next few years it is going to be either developed into another Hawaii or Cancun or developed with some sensitivity in a sustainable manner. We have to show people that preserving the rainforest is profitable and leads to sustainable development."

After lunch, we hopped onto a couple of scrawny poky horses with Urbano as our guide. Chantal hadn't been on a horse for eight years, but she took to her mount, whom she dubbed "Matthew" because that was as close as she could get to the Spanish name, with gusto.

This was right up there with the Tortuguero boats in my book of Great Ways to see the Rainforest. With the horse handling locomotion and watching the beach for obstacles, I could look straight up into the almond trees at the scarlet macaws. I was hot and sweaty but not soaked in perspiration or unable to see through fogged glasses.

We walked up the beach, into "Downtown Carate" and then up the road toward Puerto Jiménez. We passed some tiny farms and then climbed up over a lake. We had to turn around at the gate of an estate. Urbano explained that it used to be possible to go all the way around the lake and back to the beach, but a rich gringo had bought the estate, locked the gate, and ruined everything.

On the way back, Urbano spotted some spider monkeys up in the canopy. We pushed the horses into the forest a bit and looked up while one of the monkeys looked down at us. The most bizarre incident was when one monkey got chased out of the canopy by his fellows and stood in the road looking back into the forest. We watched him for awhile then started back while a couple of Costa Rican kids ran out to look at the monkey. One of them picked up some gravel, presumably to throw at him.

We rode back along the beach as a beautiful sunset developed over the Pacific. A communal fish dinner awaited at the tent camp, which we shared with Jeffrey's Treetops Explorations staff and two Dutch women, Ati and Manon. I asked Jeffrey what was the toughest part about living in the jungle for months.

"I'm kind of a phone and email junkie so when I go back to San Jose, which is about once every month, I run up a huge phone bill. Then there are the little inconveniences of living in the tropics, such as the Bot Fly."

Bot Fly?

"The Bot Fly somehow gets its eggs onto the stingers of insects like mosquitoes. When you get bitten by the mosquito, the Bot Fly eggs are inserted under your skin and they hatch into little white worms, about an inch long and fat. The worms start moving around, eating your flesh, and tunneling up to the surface for air. It is the most incredibly painful thing you've ever experienced."

Had he ever gotten bitten?

"My girlfriend and I went camping out of Sirena [in the middle of Corcovado National Park] and it was very hot so we slept without much covers. I later discovered that I had three Bot Fly worms living in my ass."

What did he do?

"The native remedy is to put a strip of bacon over the worms, which you can see right through your skin. The Bot Fly needs air so it tunnels up through the bacon and you just peel the bacon off when this happens and goodbye Bot Flies. Unfortunately, in my case only two of the three worms came through and the third one died under my skin. I got a nasty infected boil and I had to go to a doctor in San Jose to have it removed."

How much did it cost?

"I didn't have to pay for it, but it probably would have been about $50. It only took about half an hour. My girlfriend was back in Boston by the time she discovered her bites. We talked about it on the telephone and I told her what to do. Unfortunately, she used a big sausage instead of bacon and she fell asleep, which I told her not to do. The Bot Flies came out but then they went back in after they'd had their air. She ended up going to Beth Israel hospital where they had no idea what to do. They called every tropical disease specialist in the country and when they were through, summoned every intern and doctor in the hospital to watch the extraction. They even videotaped her rear end while they removed the Bot Flies. It took eight and a half hours and cost thousands of dollars."

Sunday, January 21, 1995

Corcovado serves a 5:30 breakfast for people crazy enough to take the morning Treetop Explorations tour. At 6 a.m. we met with Jeffrey, Oswaldo, a bearded Costa Rican, and Taylor, a young New York/San Francisco outdoors type. We had to sign a liability waiver before leaving. This freed Treetop Explorations from responsibility even if they were negligent and tried to make sure that any litigation happened in Costa Rica rather than the U.S."

"We have some assets in the United States that we'd like to protect," Jeffrey explained, "though we are insured to the hilt."

We started walking up to the platform.

"The hardest part of the tour is the hike up," Jeffrey had said. He wasn't kidding. Even at 6:45 a.m., Corcovado is hot and humid enough to make walking up the mountainside tough. I was wearing my photo vest stuffed with lenses and sweat soaked all of my clothing within minutes.

"We're walking through secondary forest right now," Jeffrey said, "and it turns out that secondary forest may actually support some species of birds better than primary forest. A lot more research needs to be done before we disdain secondary forest."

How much of Costa Rica was primary forest?

"It was 85% in 1964. Now it is down to 26% and about 22% of the country is under some form of protection, national parks comprising 8%," Jeffrey replied.

What has happened to the population in that time?

"It was about two million in 1964 and a little over three million now," Oswaldo answered. "We have one of the highest population growth rates in the world because everyone is Catholic, but it is changing."

"The main problem is money," Jeffrey said. "The 22% under protection isn't even safe because not all of the land has been paid for. Costa Rica has about the highest per capita debt of any country in the world. The banks that made all of those loans were crazy to think that a country like this could ever pay them back. The World Bank is the #1 enemy of the Costa Rican rainforest."

[I later learned that the debt is about $4 billion, or about $1,200/person.]

Fortunately for me, the Treetops crew stopped every few minutes on the way up to point out various features of the ecosystem. We admired beautiful Scarlet Tanagers, small black birds with bright red markings, and studied termite trails on the underside of tree branches. Butterflies were visible at every point on the trail, including the beautiful electric blue Morpho. Costa Rica is home to more than 1500 species of butterflies, more than all of North America, and most of them seem to be at home in Corcovado.

When we got up to the platform, Jeffrey, Taylor, and Oswaldo began putting ropes and harnesses together.

"We thought about building a platform between a couple of trees," Jeffrey said, "and had all kinds of designs with slip joints but then we talked to a lot of arborists and ended up just with this one 500-year-old Aho tree. We assembled it in Berkeley just to make sure that we had all of the pieces. The hardest thing was getting 3000 lbs. of equipment down here. United Airlines gave us a break on the air freight, but the day it was scheduled to leave Miami was the second day of a huge hurricane. The captain just didn't want to take off and I had to explain to him the importance of the project and how I had people on the ground in Costa Rica waiting to move it through customs. In the end, we got it down here on schedule, but it came marked as air freight instead of baggage and that ruined all of our arrangements. We had to pay an extra $1000 to get it out."

In bribes or fees?

"In fees," Jeffrey said. "We'd rather pay a little more money than get into bribes and encourage that kind of thing."

I'd expected the platform to be a wooden tower built in a clearing in the forest, but that obviously isn't in the best spirit of conservation. Instead, we looked up to find a grid of yellow fiberglass-epoxy surrounded by leafy branches. A couple of ropes hung down.

"We're just putting this harness on you as a belay," Oswaldo explained, "it won't be used at all if the sling works properly."

How many people have ended up hanging from their body harness?

"None," Jeffrey laughed.

[They'd been operating since December 10, i.e., for a little over a month.]

Some combination of whistles, radio, and winching was used to hoist me up about 130 feet in a minute or two. I concentrated on looking at the trees and branches at eye level.

When I arrived at the platform, Jeffrey hitched my harness onto a "monkey's tail" bolted to the tree, then unhitched me from the belay.

I'd expected to see a lot more wildlife up here in the canopy than I'd seen from the ground; I didn't. We did see quite a few spider monkeys at our level and fairly close, also circling white hawks, feeding hummingbirds, tree squirrels, vultures, and lots of "little birds" that the naturalists had no trouble identifying. Being up in the canopy was its own reward, however, and even if we'd seen no wildlife it would have been worth it.

Chantal stands next to a "walking tree," which actually can move several meters/year. Two second exposure.

Corcovado Tent Camp has no hot water and I was damn glad for that when we got back around 11:30. After standing under a cold shower for 15 minutes, I felt sufficiently civilized to go in for lunch, take a few photographs, then hang out in the hammocks by our tent.

Nature seemed to be saying "stay in the camp.... stay in the camp...." for she sent us five spider monkeys and several pairs of the magnificent scarlet macaws. We could see them from right in front of our tent so there was no reason on earth to leave the hotel. Chantal wanted to go on the Rio Madrigal hike, which other guests had raved about.

"If you're already tired, I wouldn't go," Lana cautioned a middle-aged Iranian-American. "It's kind of a difficult trail."

I didn't feel all that tired, but I should have taken her advice because a "difficult trail" in Costa Rica generally means no trail at all.

Felipe wore a perpetual smile, no shoes, and the kind of ropy muscles that one gets from 28 years of living in this area. He took us up the mountain first via a dry creek bed, then straight up a dry slippery hillside. We walked about 150 feet across a slope that featured a sharp drop-off to the left, steadying ourselves on tree trunks. It didn't seem as though we were gaining all that much altitude, but my heart pounded and sweat poured off my face in rivers. I was sufficiently out of it that I never noticed where I dropped my prescription sunglasses.

[My sunglasses came back via courier about a month later; Felipe had found them. Three months later, a friendly Bostonian smashed a window in my minivan and took my backpack containing both sunglasses and Samantha, my PowerBook 170 on which this entire travelogue was written.]

Felipe led us down a wet stream to the Rio Madrigal for a swim. The water was a cool 76 degrees and I immersed myself up to my face, but didn't get cool. In fact, sweat was still pouring out of my face even as I sat in the water. I didn't want to get out, but it was 4:30 and sunset was fast approaching.

Walking down the river wasn't so bad. Thanks to Felipe's encyclopedic knowledge of the area, we saw several Jesus Christ lizards skipping over the water, observed a crayfish that he dug up, and ate some Hibiscus flowers that tasted like watermelon.

It was nearly sunset when we got down to the beach, but Felipe's energy was undimmed. He scaled a coconut tree and brought down a bunch, then hacked them open with the huge knife he carried on his hip so that we could drink the milk.

We still had to walk a little more than a mile back to the tent camp. Just putting one foot in front of the other on the soft sand took all my energy. I had a tough time admiring the sunset, the macaws, or the spider monkeys we saw from the beach. I spent the evening under cold showers, drinking, and generally feeling weak with a resting pulse of 90.

[I later developed a theory about why Corcovado seemed so oppressively hot. Washington, D.C., where I grew up, actually records higher temperatures and similar humidity. Yet I don't remember ever getting this enervated after exercise there. I've concluded that it is much easier to tolerate a few hours of heat and humidity if you spend the rest of the day and night air conditioned. My body seems to have a long time constant. I don't mind the cold in Massachusetts because I'm never out in it for more than a few hours. The coldest weeks of my life were in Israel where they are too poor to heat houses or restaurants. Being at 45 degrees 24 hours/day felt much colder than being at 15 degrees for part of the day and 72 degrees the rest of the time.]

Monday, January 23, 1995

After a 6 a.m. breakfast, which was yet another in a series of remarkably good meals considering the remoteness of the tent camp and the reasonable prices, six of us walked up the beach to Carate. The sun was in our faces and we were all sweating by the time we got to the airstrip. Early light on the Pacific was beautiful though and flocks of pelicans entertained us by fishing right on top of the breakers.

Ken, an artist from Seattle, shouted just after we took off.

"Look at those turtle tracks!" Ken pointed down at the beach. Spotting turtles nesting at night was just one of the popular Corcovado activities that we'd failed to try. This was Chantal's favorite place in all of Costa Rica and she was very sorry to leave after such a short time; I wasn't personally upset by the idea of getting into the cool mountains. I would have liked to go out to Caño Island, a famous spot for its snorkeling, turtle-watching, and pre-Columbian cemetery, but there is currently no way to get there from Carate; you have to start in Drake's Bay, the main tourist town in the area, which is on the other side of the national park.

Continue on to Monteverde

Related Links

Add a comment | Add a link