On A Wing And A Prayer
Costa Rica Photo Essay - Part One

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Map of Costa Rica

One of the things I enjoyed most about travel before I became a parent, a diver, and by association, a somewhat responsible adult, was throwing some stuff in a backpack and just winging it.

Advancing years, narrow windows of opportunity to travel, and an almost single-minded determination to dive whenever and wherever possible have made me less adventuresome.

But when an invitation arose, at the last minute, to vagabond around Costa Rica with one of my progeny (in this case, eldest kid, henceforth to be abbreviated as P1), I jumped.

Armed with a Lonely Planet Guide to Costa Rica, purchased and presented by her Mama, P1 arrived first. She bought a cheapie milk run fare through the Student Union that took her and some surfer pals from Vancouver to Seattle (by bus), cross-country to Newark and finally southwest to San Jose. Buying my ticket just a couple of weeks before departure, I blew a couple of hundred extra bucks to fly in a straighter line - from Vancouver to San Jose, routing through Dallas on the way there and LAX on the way back.

P1 landed a couple of days before me and found us a place to stay - the Costa Rica Backpackers Hostel in San Jose, apparently a favourite haunt of the footloose and fancy-free. It was spartan, cheap, secure and in a good location to explore some of the center of the city by foot.

At the end of the day, I never really warmed (literally or figuratively) to San Jose in my brief stay there - in a high mountain valley, it is a smoggy, chilly, bustling metropolis with little in the way of interesting architecture or natural attractions to recommend it. Kind of like Quito in fact, without the Spanish colonial charms, equator or Pichincha Volcano.

Even though this was P1's trip, and her youthful agenda was to backpack around the country wherever the wind took us, she did agree to let me rent a car in advance. Smart girl. We had been advised that a car was a necessity to really freely explore the country - otherwise you are left to the whims of intermittent bus schedules and tour group vans on the harrowing high speed main routes.

Budget brought the car and papers to us at the hostel, and were kind enough to lead us most of the way out of town. After bumping through the dizzying pot-holed streets of San Jose, we were literally blocks from the highway when we realized we had a pancake flat. P1's youthful charms no doubt helped to bring quick roadside assistance from a few helpful gentlemen. I thanked them with a few thousand colones each (US$2 = ~1000 colones) and we were on our way. A delay in the delivery of the car, the tire change and resultant need to swing by Budget at the airport to swap out the dead spare, ruined our chances of getting to Monteverde that day, which we had planned only that morning. I was reluctant to make the drive up the mountain (accurately advertised as torturous) in the dark. It was a good call.

The picture above was taken while we were stopped on the highway for several hours whilst a very bad accident involving a semi tractor trailer and a large bus was cleared. With my limited Spanish, I was able to understand that there had been many fatalities, and to be honest, it was no big surprise. I'm betting accidents are frequent and tragic, given the roads and the drivers.

Anyone who has driven in Costa Rica will shudder at the memory. The roads are, with the exception of the modern four lane highway heading north out of San Jose for a few miles, pot-holed, winding death-traps.

The Pan American Highway that connects Mexico to South America is a perilous two laned affair, with all the bumps, twists and turns that one should expect from a hot latin lover. Double yellow lines and signs forbidding passing are completely ignored, and it is not unusual to see a 18 wheeler passing another around a bend in the road at 60 mph.

The suspension bridge to the left (Punto Moreno) is fairly new, and creates a scenic shortcut between the beaches on the west coast of Guanacaste province and San Jose, without the need to drive all the way up to Liberia before turning in for the coast.

Plans scrapped for Monteverde, and in the spirit of winging it, P1 decided that we should head for the hills later in the week. Instead, the plan of the moment was to drive to Puntarenas (a charm-challenged port town) and check out the ferry that travels across to the south end of the peninsula where the nice surfing beaches (and her friends) were hanging out, and then make our way north along the coast to bag a few dives.

It turns out that the ferry is a confusing conveyance - we were told that it runs every two hours, and tickets must be purchased at the office by the dock in advance, but, as we found out the hard way, there is apparently no guarantee that queued cars will get loaded, not to mention that the ticket office does not open until after the first two sailings of the day have departed. Not willing to blow another day waiting around, we killed several cervezas at a local watering hole and spent the night at a lousy Puntarenas hotel, and then headed for the mountains early the next day.

Following the signs leading to Monteverde, we found ourselves on a loose rock-strewn dirt road within metres of leaving the highway. The 40 km drive to Monteverde was looking pretty grim. And grim it was. There are no plans to pave this stretch of road anytime soon, and doing any more than 20 km per hour up the bone-rattling grade with hairpin corners and sheer drop offs would be suicidal.

Besides, the high clearance gutless wonder that we rented just didn't have the cojones to get there any faster. Still, for US$135 per week for the car (plus usurious 3rd party liability insurance and gas), it wasn't such a bad thing.

North American summer and fall is the wet season in Costa Rica, and I bet the road to Monteverde can become impassable at times due to heavy rains.

The inland ranch country in the foothills leading to the Cloud Forest Reserve at Monteverde is really lovely. But hot. The climate change in the 50 or so kilometers from ocean to mountains is astonishing - dry, arid coast transforms itself into lush, cool, verdant rain forest in a very short distance.

Overhanging the road are the amazingly gorgeous sprawling colourful flowering trees and shrubs that make Costa Rica so beautiful.

On the way up the road (and ubiquitous all over the country) there are "Sodas" which are Costa Rican eateries where you can buy, as an example, an entirely satisfying arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and a Coke or beer for US$3 - $4.

There are innumerable rivers in Costa Rica. Driving the highway between San Jose and Liberia (in the north), we must have crossed scores of bridges.

This one made a perfect spot to stop and cool our heels for a bit, on our climb up the mountain.

River rafting on some of the major flows is a popular tourist pastime in Costa Rica, and I wish we could have found the time to partake.

Still climbing towards Monteverde, the views to the ocean and to Peninsula Nicoya beyond are lovely.

The peninsula (which in many ways is reminiscent of the Baja) is bone dry this time of year (February) with trees in their dormant stage. After just a few days of rain, apparently it jumps back to life and goes green.

Living fences are a cool concept.

Limbs are lopped off this variety of tree and the cut end is shoved into the ground (after a full moon), where miraculously, it takes root and sprouts another tree. Strands of barbed wire are stapled to the bark, and voila, a catte-proof fence is made.

View to a Cloud Forest.

As we near the top of the arduous and kidney-crunching climb the cloud forest comes into view. Cloud Forest is a more tourist-friendly term than the reality of this ecosystem - it is a rain forest, pure and simple. Bring your waterproof jacket, 'cuz you're gonna need it.

Check out the ribbon of road hugging the hillside. That is the road to Monteverde. It seems impossible to contemplate, but large tour buses make the journey daily.

This is local habitation around the tourist town of Santa Elena. It is a bit confusing, because everyone seems to call the area Monteverde - which is actually the name of the Cloud Forest Reserve.

Santa Elena is where it's happening - it is the launching point for rain forest treks and zips at various parks in the area. Tourists can also arrange horse treks (try humane Sabine's Smiling Horses), waterfall expeditions, trips to Arenal to see the live volcano, plus numerous other activities.

Eco-tourism has brought prosperity to this part of Costa Rica. In fact, Costa Ricans appear, in general, to enjoy a significantly higher standard of living than their other Central American neighbours.

The Cloud Forest is only a few minutes drive up the hill from the town of Santa Elena. It is surreal how the relatively dry country around the town transforms itself into dense, lush, dripping jungle just a mile or two away.

Main Street Santa Elena - a very busy Eco-tourism village. Restaurants, bank, lodgings, coffee houses, bars, disco, tourism offices, gift stores, internet cafes, and a surprisingly well-stocked grocery store line the streets of the compact mountain town.

There is no shortage of good places to eat in Santa Elena, although generally restaurants and cafes are priced for wealthy gringos. Even the prices at the local Soda (good food) were almost double those elsewhere on our journey. We especially enjoyed Morphos, Soda El Central and, although it was pricey, The Treehouse Restaurant, with tables on a platform under the expansive branches of a very ancient tree. The local watering hole is called Amigos, and they feature live music several nights a week. Next door is a great little coffee/gift shop (the name eludes me) that offers great light meals.

Rainbows are a dime a dozen up in this part of the world.

Two weather patterns collide over the crest of this mountain range - moist humid air from the Pacific side of Costa Rica and more moist humid air from the Caribbean side. The result is tumultous weather - huge winds, raining hard one minute, blue sky the next. Some clothing and shoes suitable for hiking in cool and wet weather are a must.

The weather patterns and the humidity create a constant state of moisture in the Cloud Forest - between serious unleashings of heavy downpours is a seemingly perpetual misting rain. The combination of all that moisture and the relatively warm air creates the ideal conditions for the growing of gargantuan trees and thick undergrowth. Even the ferns in the rain forest are of psychotic proportions.

This is the Arco Iris Lodge. We stumbled upon it when driving around town looking for a place to stay. We were winging it, remember? Well, that means no such luxuries as reservations (except for diving - more on that later).

We pulled out the Lonely Planet book to have a look at what they were recommending, and this place got the author's pick for the area. At US$45 a night for a charming stand alone wood cabin with bunks and bathroom, it was a steal. The breakfast buffet offered at $6.00 pp was fairly good, but there are better places in town for stoking up before heading up to zip around in the Cloud Forest, for less bucks.

The staff at the Arco Iris is happy to book local tours for you on arrival, including Cloud Forest zip tours. There are several companies around Monteverde doing the oh-so-popular zip tour gig, but they gave the nod to Selvatura - home of the longest zip line in Costa Rica. You can also book other stuff like taxi and boat (over the lake) passage from Santa Elena to the volcano (Arenal) - not all that distant by the way the crow flies, but reportedly a gruesome trek, if you are brave enough to drive yourself.

Bougainvillea everywhere. Beautiful, lush, happy plants obviously getting the right balance of sun and moisture.

Costa Rica is a very colourful country with hillsides ablaze in orange and pink and yellow. With an emerald backdrop, it is all rather breathtaking.

These little green buses are everywhere, booting around, picking up tourists to drive them up to Selvatura Park, where they pay the big bucks to walk in and/or zip through the rain forest canopy, as well as visit the (delightful) Hummingbird Garden and the Butterfly Garden, which was closed when we there as the roof had been blown off the thing by ferocious winds and the butterflies had all gone awol. Pity.

You can actually drive up to Selvatura, which, if we had known, we would have done. What goes up must come down, and the buses only run every couple of hours, so once there, you are captive til you can find an empty seat to come back.

Selvatura Park is a very nifty, professionally run attraction that offers the most zips of any operator in Costa Rica (17) - truly an awe-inspiring experience, as is walking the 2 mile circuit through the rain forest, often over bridges suspended high above the canopy.

This is what we came for. Zip lines in the Cloud Forest.

Predictably, it was raining, and the combination of high speed trajectories, often requiring both hands to brake, plus wet conditions, were not amenable to camera work, so you are just going to have to believe me when I tell you that it was the closest thing to flying I have ever experienced, while not on scuba.

On arrival, zippers (that would be us), in groups of a dozen or so, are kitted up with climber's harnesses and hard hats and wet weather gear and then guided out into the jungle to the first platform. There, a short tutorial is given on the art of zipping, and even more importantly, the art of braking. Zipping is achieved by hoisting yourself up off the platform to be clipped off (with a redundancy) to a metal cable strung between two trees. In many cases, the cables are so long that it is not possible to see the landing platform on the other end. Braking is achieved by applying one or both heavily gloved hands (with thick leather pads on the palms) to the cable above your head as you are coming in on a speedy collision course with a very large tree trunk.

And really, before you know what has hit you, you are given a last bit of coaching and encouragement, and then you are unceremoniously pushed off the platform.

So there you are, winging it over and through the rain forest, just you and the whir of metal on metal as you fly, at speeds up to 30 mph or so, through the cloudy mist and outstretched boughs of grandaddy trees, hundreds of feet above the floor of the forest below. Wheeeeeeeeee!

I'd do it again in a nanosecond. Even the free-falling, heart-stopping, leave-your-stomach-in-your-throat, wild arc cable swing that they throw into the deal.

Having survived the adventure, the full circle of cables brings you back to the main lodge. There, you return all your safety gear, pick up your camera (and a plastic poncho for a few bucks if you've forgotten to bring a rain jacket) and head out to walk the two mile circut of bridges and paths through the forest.

The suspension bridges are feats of engineering. How they got the parts up into the canopy in the first place is a mystery to me. Then finding a routing through and over the deep gullies that provide chutes for the incessant run off of rain would have been a challenge.

To avoid trampling upon the tender earth, the entire route has been laid with a sort of concrete grid material that allows for water to run through and keeps walking shoes from becoming laden with mud.

It was so quiet in the forest - we never saw another soul. There was just the rain, plopping on the big green leaves, to provide a soundtrack for our reverie in green.

An astonishing biodiversity abounds in the rain forest (even though I am left wondering if this is actually a coffee plant that somehow seeded itself in the jungle). But what the hey - it was the most colourful and unusual plant I saw, so there you have it ;^)

Enormous trees and monstrous plants.Tangles of vines with tendrils hundreds of feet long. Scores of birds and animals noisily making their homes in this Eden.

It is very special, and Thank The Eco-Gods that someone had the idea of creating the large reserve at Monteverde before some greedy bastards clear cut it (as has happened to so much to the lush forests of this country, and of the world), so that we can pay the piper to see what the earth would have been like before we trod so heavily upon it.

I was so hoping that we would happen upon a three-toed sloth or a Resplendant Quetzel or a monkey - something special to write home about. I had this unfulfilled fantasy that Costa Rica is so literally teeming with exotic animals that we would be tripping over them. No such luck. The animals are no doubt there, but the thick vegetation provides ample opportunity for them to live privately.


Cloudy day, flat light, misting rain - not easy conditions for photography, but every now and then P1 and I would be inspired enough by the view to risk unleashing the cameras (wrapping the bodies in tacky plastic shopping bags to keep as much rain off as possible), and then snapping off a few quickies.

I do not have the skills to adequately capture the majesty of the enormous trees, which are impossible to take in with one eyeful, nor a way to fully represent the lushness nor the diversity nor the sound of this magic kingdom.

 In the Hummingbird Garden at Selvatura Park.

Still raining, so quick and dirty with the shots, struggling with low light and fast moving subjects, a devilish proposition with a camera.

The garden hosts a variety of hummingbirds, from tiny thumb-sized sweet things to the big, skittish, surreally cobalt blue birds that never stopped moving.

In fair weather conditions, I could spend many happy hours observing and trying to photograph these beautiful birds. But that was not to be today.

 After spending one more night up in the mountains, we loaded up the gutless wonder and pointed it down the hill, and then headed for the coast.

I had been in contact with Resort Divers (Viviane) of Costa Rica via internet during our stay in Santa Elena to organize a day of diving for our anticipated stay on the coast. Resort Divers was recommended by other members of the scubadiving.com community, and I was impressed by their quick response and willingness to accomodate our fairly specific request to do a 3 tank dive Catalina and/or Bat Island.

Tally ho.

Costa Rica Photo Essay - Part Two
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