Cruising the Canopy in Costa Rica
Opportunity knocked one autumn day when my wife, Wilma, discovered a travel brochure in our mailbox. It read: "Tour Costa Rica and cruise through the Panama Canal." Perfect. Wilma had always dreamed of sailing through the Canal, and I of wandering through a Costa Rican rain forest. Even though we had not put money aside for such a trip, we felt that it would be well worth the strain on our budget.
We weren't disappointed. Our accommodations in San Jose, Costa Rica's capitol city, were excellent. The grounds were beautifully landscaped and the service was impeccable. This was to be our home base as we explored the city and the surrounding states of Cartago, San Jose, and Puntarenas.
The most memorable experience for me, rivaling even the passage through the Panama Canal, was our trip to a rain forest. As it turned out, half the fun was getting there. We drove through misty, foggy cloud forests that seldom see the sun and then to lower elevations where we stopped at an enchanting butterfly farm. Here the air was filled with a kaleidoscope of colors-on-the-wing and the intoxicating fragrance of Butterfly Ginger (Hedychium coronarium) in bloom. An occasional butterfly would land on our heads and shoulders or would climb obligingly onto our fingers when coaxed a bit.
Much to our surprise and delight, we learned that butterfly farming is a growing industry in Costa Rica. It doesn't require much land, and there is a strong foreign market for the butterfly chrysalis. Poor farmers who in the past had barely eked out a living on a few acres of land are now raising butterflies and living comfortably.
Then it was on to the highlight of the day. The road grew ever narrower and turned to bumpy rock instead of the smooth pavement to which we had become accustomed. As we bounced around a bend in the road, a small area of jungle opened up to reveal what looked more like an outpost than a tourist mecca. There was a very small shop where tickets for the tour were available, along with a few trinkets and light refreshment. Alongside the shop was the cableway that would take us on an unforgettable trip into the rain forest canopy. Each gondola held five or six persons along with a guide.
As we began our assent, I marveled at the fact that the cable system made absolutely no noise. The only sounds we heard were the occasional calls from toucans and warblers, the soft trickle of raindrops as they fell from leaf to leaf on their vertical journey to the ground, and the distant rush of a small stream. So awed were we that everyone automatically spoke in hushed whispers. We started out on the forest floor, where the vegetation was appropriately lush, punctuated by a burst of bright red from the occasional Heliconia. As we drifted slowly into the mid-level, the exuberant vegetation that had enveloped our gondola gave way to a more open setting where epiphytes and orchids held sway in the branches of the taller trees. Here, too, the eye could follow the flattened Monkey Ladder vines (Bauhinia glabra) as they undulated and swirled their way from the ground to the brighter light of the canopy.
The canopy itself was dominated by the tops of Broccoli Trees (Ceiba pentandra). I was also able to see many of Costa Rica's 2,000-plus Bromeliad species from our canopy vantage point, along with more orchids. Since it was late morning, most of the forest animals were napping. We did catch sight of a sloth snoozing in a sunny treetop during a pause in the intermittent rain (see arrow in center of photo below). It was well camouflaged and required a discerning eye to discover it in its leafy bed.
As we returned to the platform from which we launched our gondola, we were amazed that we had been on the tramway for almost 90 minutes. Time seemed to stand still and a pleasant euphoria had crept over us on our journey. We mentioned this to our guide, who explained that this particular region of the rain forest had an oxygen level 25% higher than normal air. We were, he exclaimed, on an oxygen high!
Back on terra firma, we followed our guide into the jungle on foot to get a closer view of the forest floor. We came upon some Torch Ginger (Alpinia spp.) in bloom in a clearing and some more Heliconia among the dense greenery we had observed earlier from our gondola. We even happened upon an anteater who wasted no time scurrying into the undergrowth, away from the humans who were intruding on his territory.
We returned from our hike to a wonderful luncheon, served right in the middle of the jungle. Some of the food was new to us, but what must have really impressed us was a drink called soursop. Among all the new foods we tasted, it was the only one whose name we could remember! Contrary to its name it was sweet, smooth, and quite tasty.
With lovely memories of the day's events tucked away in our heads and recorded in my wife's journal, we boarded the bus back to our hotel and looked forward to the promise of new adventures in the days to come.
Have you ever experienced a rain forest? Even if you haven't, your comments and questions are welcome in the space provided below. I'd love to hear from you.
© Larry Rettig 2008
*See my article, A Tropical Garden Adjacent to Your Bedroom: Why not?!
**Two owl butterfiles made a unique spectacle (pun intended) in a recent weekly "You Supply the caption" feature.