by Philip Greenspun

Home : Travel : Costa Rica : One Part

Thursday, January 19, 1995

Edgar, a voluble guide, and his driver picked us up at the Milvia at 5:40 a.m. We went to a couple of downtown hotels to pick up Marlene, a Michigan woman, and Chris and Jill, from Orange County. En route to a small airport used for charter flights, Edgar briefed us on what to expect.

"On the left side of the plane, you will check the volcanoes. You will also check a river that has turned yellow because of the minerals from the volcano. After you are over the mountains surrounding San Jose, you will check banana plantations on the other side down to the ocean. That is the main use of the land until you get to Tortuguero."

We really ought to have explained to him the difference between "check" and "see," but we didn't.

We piled into a surprisingly large twin Piper with the pilot, a casually dressed taciturn man with a fancy aviator's watch but no earplugs or headset. I was relieved when he gave the engines a full run-up and also when I saw the modern Trimble GPS unit in the dashboard, although with a blue sky and the strong light of dawn, it would clearly be unnecessary. San Jose is at 3,773 feet [1,150 m] and we climbed to 7400 feet to get through a pass in the mountains. The city looked beautiful. The volcanoes that had sounded so impressive in Edgar's description just looked like mountains covered with lush green foliage.

The only real excitement of the flight came when I turned around to talk to Chantal and stepped hard on the left rudder pedal; the plane yawed sharply and the pilot threw me an angry look.

It was only about 7:15 when a palm-lined airstrip appeared on a spit between the ocean and a long canal. We touched down and a minute later were boating across the canal toward the Tortuga Lodge, gleaming in the early morning sun.

We were immediately enveloped in an atmosphere of community. Breakfast was being served family-style at a long table. We dumped our bags outside the dining hall. Costa Rica is getting a lot of bad press for theft, but I had no qualms about leaving my Macintosh and camera bag outside for four hours; Tortuga Lodge doesn't even have locks on the room doors.

After stuffing our faces with eggs, pancakes, fruit, granola, and the ubiquitous gallo pinto, we boarded a skiff for a tour through the canals.

This is the way to see the rainforest. No mosquitoes, no effort, no sweat, no rocks hitting your legs, a nice breeze off the water, an ice chest full of complimentary sodas from the lodge, a guide with RADAR for animals. It wasn't until I did a little hiking in the rainforest that I appreciated how good we had it in Tortuguero.

The jungle scenery compared favorably to that which had already awed us down the Pacuare. In three hours, we saw howler and spider monkeys, toucans, blue herons, white herons, a great blue heron, tree iguanas, two caimans, and a sloth. Trees come in two varieties. One kind is comfortable with parasitic plants and is therefore covered in vines. These have a thick lush appearance. The other kind has bark that is anathema to vines and these appear very tall because the trunk is thin and side branches few until an explosion two hundred feet up in the canopy.

Sloth going down, Iguana going up.

Lunch was a delicious six-course communal affair. Tortuga Lodge serves the best food that we found in Costa Rica, which was remarkable considering that everything has to come in by truck and then up the canal for three hours. In two days we feasted on octopus, salads with perfect tomatoes, ripe fruit, strange vegetables, steaks, Mahi-Mahi, and chicken.

We went back out from 2:30 until about 6, but didn't see as many animals. The highlight of the trip was a stop at the little village of Tortuguero. About 1000 people live in the general area and a few hundred are clustered in the village proper. Children ride their bikes among pigs and chickens, a couple of shops cater to tourists, one public phone serves most of the community, chickens roost in trees, every spare open space has been converted to a soccer field. In a fifteen minute walk, I found a guy tying up bananas in his front yard, a soccer game in progress on the one regulation field, a young girl teaching her younger brother to ride a bike, and teenagers gabbing with their pet parrot.

All of Los Angeles seemed to be at dinner: Dave and Ellen, New York Jews transplanted to Orange County, and Stuart and Leslie, who live in the San Fernando Valley, arrived to join Chris and Jill. Chris is an anesthesiologist and both Ellen and Jill were nurses. Ellen works in a plastic surgery clinic so we talked about the booming plastic surgery industry in Costa Rica.

"It is so much cheaper to have dental work or plastic surgery done here," a Tico explained, "that you can come here for a long vacation, have the procedure done, and fly back to the states having spent less than you'd spend for the procedure alone in the U.S. The only problem is that you have to be sure you know who you're dealing with."

Ellen said it was the same in L.A.

"Every doctor calls himself a plastic surgeon, but people don't realize that he might be completely unqualified and inexperienced."

I figured it would be a good time to make friends.

"L.A. is a cultural and spiritual wasteland so people find solace in materialism and plastic surgery."

Chris chuckled and Jill looked horrified--people didn't talk like that back in Indiana where she was from.

"Consider this," I continued. "You never hear of people in the Midwest moving just because they got a little more money. In California, people move every couple of years even if they don't get more money. It doesn't matter how much money you have in California as long as you have the stuff; nobody will ask whether you borrowed or stole it all."

"One of the bad things is fences," noted Leslie, "because they isolate people from one another. In other parts of the country, if you are having a barbecue in your backyard, you can lean over and talk to your neighbors. With a fence, it isn't possible. I'd be ready to move in a second."

"The real problem is working women," I said. "My mom was the person who knew everyone in the neighborhood and introduced my dad to them. When both partners work, nobody has time to build a social circle around the house."

"I came to LA ten years ago from Indiana," Jill related, "and hated it for years. As soon as I got out there, I was sitting by the pool in my apartment complex and a girl leaned over and said `You're not from California, are you? You're much too open and friendly. You have to be suspicious of people out here.' I've found friends with common interests now and have gotten used to the weather being great all the time. It took years, though."

Dave talked about his career in the computer industry.

"After a few years I wasn't doing programming anymore because there was only so far you could go. I started my own company and ended up doing management. I got out about five years ago, though. Now I'm doing retail. It's completely different but it's fun. I have two franchise party goods superstores."

What about chucking it all and moving to Costa Rica?

"That man is not alive," Ellen pointed to Steve, the manager. "Something happens to people here. I tried talking to him for awhile today and he's walking dead, believe me."

Friday, January 20, 1995

"You'll sleep well here," Steve had said. "There's no noise and no light. Everybody sleeps well in Tortuga."

He was right for we slept dreamlessly under our ceiling fan and straggled into the dining room at 7:30 for the tail-end of another sumptuous breakfast. If we'd had any brains, we would have arranged a boat tour with a real naturalist. The usual boat guides are reasonable at spotting wildlife but they have a difficult time saying anything very interesting about the animals in English.

We wanted to hike up "the mountain" and arranged a boat and guide with Steve. People who'd done the hike the day before had talked about coming really close to a group of white-faced monkeys.

"It rained all night last night," Steve warned, "and the trail is going to be very difficult."

"It's only 360 feet high," I responded. "How hard could it be?"

Steve just smiled.

Ramon, a weathered fellow with a gold tooth, appeared five minutes later to run us a half a mile up the canal in a skiff. We got out and started walking through the flat area near the beach.

"Parrots," Ramon said. His English ultimately proved remarkably good, but he tended to be a man of few words.

We searched and searched while he pointed. After two minutes of peering, we finally were able to see the two big green parrots sitting side-by-side talking to each other. They were so far away and so close to the color of the foliage that they were tough to pick out even pointing a 350mm lens straight at them.

Aside from red tree frogs, those were the last animals we saw on what I came to call the Rainforest Death March. The trail was treacherous, muddy, steep, and hard. Sweat poured down my face in rivers, mixed with DEET and began to dissolve my plastic cameras. Mosquitoes settled around me every time I stopped. My glasses were so fogged with sweat that I could barely see.

Ever wonder about the glamorous life of a wildlife photographer? Here I am bent over a red tree frog using one hand to focus and release the EOS-5 and 50/2.8 macro lens (in AF mode). I'm using the other hand to hold a flash off-camera. Ramon is holding a white sheet of paper that serves as a reflector.

A couple of points on the trail offered nice views of the surrounding jungle and beaches, but certainly nothing we hadn't seen from the airplane. At the very top, we could see almost to the border with Nicaragua.

"My family lives up there," Ramon pointed toward Barra del Colorado, 20 miles north on the coast. "My wife and six children."

How often does he see them?

"Five days a month. I take a boat up the canal, which takes about an hour and a half, or walk up the beach, which takes five hours."

How old are the kids?

"The oldest is 15 and the youngest is six months."

We were beginning to understand Costa Rica's 2.7% growth rate [the U.S. has a 0.7% annual growth rate].

Continue on to Corcovado

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