Flying through the Rain Forest

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Costa Rica  ,
Monday, May 3, 2004

The first thing that we experienced after crossing the border into Costa Rica was a severe case of reverse culture shock. The vibrant latin and indigenous cultures that we so enjoyed in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua were replaced with a distinctly more European/North American feeling - less spontaneous, more organized, less litter - laid-back, middle-class might be a good description. Costa Rica has had a very different history from most of the rest of Central America, and has been largely democratically governed since gaining independence from Spain in 1821. The armed forces were abolished after a short civil war in 1948, and Costa Rica is now regarded as one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the world. However, the indigenous peoples are almost non-existent, having been largely wiped out by European diseases in the mid-16th century, and this has been a factor in the development of a blander and more homogenous society.

From the mid-20th century there has been significant government emphasis on education and environmental conservation. The economy has evolved from subsistence farming, through export agriculture based on coffee, bananas, other fruits and ornamentals. It then received a big boost during the 1990s from ecological tourism, and the average per capita income is now one of the highest in Central America. In 1997 Intel opened a production plant here, and computer chips currently account for almost half of export revenues. Costa Rica is also a haven for North Americans seeking a warm climate for their retirement years - with the added benefits of a stable society where English is widely spoken - and there is a rapidly expanding expatriate community here.

Our first order of business was to head for the capital city San José in order to carry out some housekeeping tasks - a visit to the dentist for Gerry to get a chipped tooth fixed; a consultation with an ophthalmologist for Sharon for continuing problems with her eyes; and visits to shipping agents to start making arrangements for getting the van across the Darien Gap to Ecuador. However after a few days we were anxious to leave the big city behind and head for the hills again. We decided to visit Volcán Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the country. Heading north of the InterAmericana Highway at San Ramón, we were almost immediately struck with the lush emerald green vegetation of the hills, and at times it felt as if we were driving in the countryside of England or New Zealand.

About 100 km from San José, we noticed a tourist resort offering canopy tours and adventure cables, which included a sign for "Camping". Our curiosity was piqued as we had found very few official campsites throughout El Salvador and Nicaragua, so we drove in to have a look and see just what camping in Costa Rica really offered. Dropping 500 ft down a rather rough, windy road, we reiterated our decision just to have a quick look before heading on to Arenal. Our quick look turned out to be....four days! We couldn't believe our luck as we parked the van under the shade of the oil palm trees next to a tranquil man-made lake used for fish breeding. A wooden walkway led out to a rustic boathouse in the middle of the lake, and as nobody else was around it was like having our own private spot in paradise. The next few days saw us lounging in our lawn chairs in the shade, and with field-glasses in hand we spent many hours following the flight of all manner of exotic birdlife - from a variety of brilliantly coloured hummingbirds, Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, the Great Kiskadee - a yellow-bellied flycatcher, to the Northern Jacana - a coot with yellow wings and a bright yellow beak plate.

Rainy season has arrived in Costa Rica, so the tourist population has diminished considerably. Even so, there were enough visiting groups to keep the cables buzzing overhead in the forest canopy. Sometimes we would be watching the birds, and then have to refocus the field-glasses to follow the human bodies fitted with hard hats, whizzing across the skyline cables on pulley harnesses. When it all became too much, we would turn our attention to our constant companions at our feet - the leaf cutter ants. Almost everywhere we camped, we interrupted the herculean labours of armies of these ants. Marching along their well worn tracks, they hefted relatively huge pieces of leaf, intent on reaching their destination regardless of the obstacles in between - even if was a VW Camper Van!

By day three, we finally plucked up enough courage to try the Adventure Cable System ourselves. We were assured that we weren't too old for such an "adrenalin rush", so calmly put our lives into the hands of two young but very competent and knowledgeable guides. We started with the canopy tour, with short cable runs of 100 to 200 metres, and with the emphasis being on the trees and forest canopy, the birds and the wildlife. Finally we moved to the Adventure Cables, first climbing towers varying from 6 to 21 metres in height, and then jumping off the platforms, all the while hooked to cables running up to 700 metres in length.......and travelling through the air at over 50 km per hour. We became more daring with each one, even venturing to drop our arms from the supporting pulley. It was truly exhilarating!! After three hours of flight, we felt like veritable teenagers again, so decided to wind down by taking a couple of hours hike through the rain forest - this time on the ground at a more leisurely pace. Since there were no guests staying at the hotel, the manager encouraged us to use the swimming pool and jacuzzi, so we ended a busy day on a very relaxing note.
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