COSTA RICA: Nature Excursion

photo by the author
As soon as our tour bus pulled out from the port parking lot, I saw a bunch of Toyota cars that appeared to have just been unloaded from a cargo ship. The area looked as if it were an industrial port complex. Our bus immediately exited the port area, heading towards the Tarcoles River. It was during this time that our tour guide, Eddy, started his “Did you know questions…” to introduce us to Costa Rica. He said that Costa Rica has a mark on almost everything that we consumed in the US - from banana chips to computer chips.

In my travels, I have been drawn to the beautiful landscape and countryside more than the big city. There were no shopping or commercial buildings outside the port area. All of a sudden I felt I was seeing the real thing, we were traveling through tropical forest. The rain spattered on and off. Eddy talked about the Tarcoles River and the crocodiles, and showed us a video about the study done by an American filmmaker and environmentalist on the crocodiles' adaptive behavior.

We then arrived to what appeared to be an open building and restroom facilities. We walked to the river bank, and the downpour to catch our boat. Eddy handed us a folded card with pictures of birds, with the heading “Jungle Crocodile Safari & Bird Watching Tour”. The “Bird Watching Tour” part was printed in tiny letters. I had no idea that we were “birding” too. But the first thing we spotted was a White Ibis. “It’s #9 on your card”, said Eddy. I can identify my tropical plants and trees – mango, guava and papaya, but birds seemed all the same to me. The card was really helpful because I spotted more species of birds in the span of an hour more than I saw in my lifetime – white heron, blue heron, tricolored heron, white egret, sandpiper, motmot, mangrove swallow, caracara, etc.  The boat driver was able to spot all kinds of birds and wildlife. So Eddy would talk to him in Spanish and would announce in English what we were seeing. The river itself was interesting. I wanted to ask Eddy about the swirling current, but he was busy naming birds while answering, "What number is that on the card?", or pointing to crocodiles bobbing head and seeing crocodile crests at the river bank.

When our boat driver spotted 2 scarlet macaws, the boat grind to a halt. Everybody, including me, went crazy with our cameras. Then Eddy started explaining why the scarlet macaw is becoming an endangered species. He got emotional when he talked about the poachers who smuggled the birds out of his country and explained why new environmental laws were passed. He seemed so knowledgeable and passionate talking about the environment.

Our boat went against the current near the mouth of the river then veered to the mangrove river where we spotted a tiny monkey peeking down at us, leaping and dancing on a tiny bough. I wonder if the monkey sensed that he/she was the center of attention because he/she went on to hide, just as everyone on the boat could click their cameras. I didn’t get a chance to ask my question about the swirling current, all I could remember was Eddy saying, “…the water flows from the Pacific Ocean”.

I was puzzled by the murky and seemed to be polluted river that was teeming with wildlife. At the same time, I was pleasantly surprised at the bio-diversity in this river: I saw more than 40 species of birds (including 2 scarlet macaws), iguanas, 1 monkey, and Jesus Christ lizard. Why Jesus Christ lizard? “Because it can walk on water”, explained Eddy. Oh we even got a visit from a herd of little white cows. They had this uniform look as if saying hello, and when we left they moved to the direction of our boat as if saying goodbye. And of course the river was littered with crocodiles.

Before arriving in Costa Rica, our cruise ship-resident-tour guide talked about the mountain clouds. The mountain clouds offer perfect condition for growing superior quality coffee and form breathtaking landscape. So while admiring all these bio-diversity, I kept my eyes open, hoping to capture the landscape. 

After a snack of fruits and coffee, we proceeded to our next adventure. Our bus drove through a two-lane highway, dotted by small villages. Incidentally, I saw a huge iron gate leading to a developed road with manicured bushes (probably leading to a fancy resort).

Soon after, we reached Puntarenas’s nature reserves and major tourist attraction – the rainforest. We took the aerial tram to the top and zip-line station. I felt as if I were floating on a cloud, carpeted with emerald forest underneath. As we inched higher, our environmentalist-tour guide started naming plants: Avocado tree!  Not so exotic, I thought. But it was just one among the trees found in this cascading complex of greens. Then the forest began revealing different layers – dense underbrush, majestic trees, different parasitic plants, orchids and bromeliads, moss, reptiles and insects (ants) clinging to towering woods. A couple of blue butterflies seemed to guide our path or to show off their wings as they would not leave our sight. The sound was deafening as we got closer to the top. It was the sound of the waterfalls mixed with the chirping birds and the cicadas. Our aerial tram followed the path of the waterfall. It was an amazing steep cliff and waterfall. As we headed down, we saw some of the most breathtaking views and a glimpse of the Pacific Coast. [Click on the thumbnail below to see video]

We hiked under a canopy of trees and saw different varieties of plants – banana, cacao, ginger. We found a cornucopia of flora and fauna, and even spotted a poisonous blue frog. The trail was part of the park, so we saw different varieties of snakes from a contained environment.

Earlier that day, we found some coupons and flyers with information as to where we could buy souvenirs and coffee. Eddy also did some advertising about the goodness of Costa Rica coffee. He claimed that Costa Rica produced much better coffee because it's cultivated from Arabica beans and grown in mountains cloaked by the forest cloud and mist. Of course, every coffee producing country boasts about their coffee. (I heard the same claim from Hawaii for their Kona coffee). So I was a bit skeptical until I tasted the coffee served during lunch. For souvenir, I bought 12 lbs. of Costa Rica coffee to take home. Just as I was leaving the souvenir shop, I spotted a toucan.

Overwhelmed by the bounty and beauty of nature and tired from the day’s adventure, I settled at the back of the bus. On our way back to the port, our tour bus came to a sudden halt. Accident I thought! But no! Our driver suddenly stepped on the brake when he spotted a couple of scarlet macaws. Eddy ordered him to pull over to the side of the road so everyone could take pictures. I thought his license plate should read, “I BRAKE FOR SCARLET MACAW”. Then Eddy told us to get some rest before listening to his ‘banana story’.

From these few hours in Costa Rica I can conclude: I ate a satisfying organic food (something we never had from the cruise ship) for lunch, drank coffee that was so smooth, and treated to the overwhelming beauty and bounty of nature. And it rains in the rainforest. End of story! Superficial, yes. Just as I was trying to process this whole hedonistic trip and wondering why the Tarcoles River was teeming with wildlife even though it looked polluted, Eddy picked up the microphone to continue sharing some facts about Costa Rica. Costa Rica does not have an army. They spend the money on environmental protection, education, education, education and bringing awareness especially to young children. Yes, trying to make eco-tourism sustainable is a delicate balance. What struck me the most was the banana story and the amount of chemicals used in our bananas. So here's the thing I learned from the "banana story": I will look for ugly bananas the next time I go to Wholefoods or my supermarket.

I like Eddy. He seems so passionate about his work and the environment and really enjoys sharing his experience and knowledge. Just to share some of Eddy's words:

Did you know that 4th- class graded bananas are made into baby foods?   But that’s not the whole story.  A banana plantation worker has to endure the heat from wearing protective gear to protect him from the chemical sprayed to banana plants.  Before the banana gets cleaned and boxed, transported to the nearby port for loading and transported by sea to another port, and transported to the ripening facility before it's transported to your supermarket, it's graded as follows:

·         1st class – Perfect size. Goes to the US market.  Shipped to US using ethylene gas to control the ripening process.  Also washed in chemicals to remove the brown/black sticky sap.

·         2nd class – Supplied to hotels & and restaurants

·         3rd class – Goes to the local market

·         4th class – Not perfect size, not washed in chemicals, the sweetest and made into baby food. 

Did you know that a bird feeder can destroy a whole Eco-system?   One tiny hummingbird goes to 2,000-4,000 flowers to get their supply of sugar. That's because flowers provide only 2% of their sugar need.  A bird feeder contains 500ml (all sugar).  So this creates 4 problems:

·         Now a hummingbird gets 100% and then more of its sugar need from a bird feeder, so it doesn't need the flower to get its supply of sugar.  Flowers don't get pollination

·         Hummingbirds tend to over eat.  Their tiny stomach can only tolerate so much food, so they dropped. 

·         If they don't dropped, they get fat and big.  Big hummingbird prey on tiny birds.
·         Bird feeders left for weeks to collect bacteria, and bacteria kill birds.
Click on the thumbnail below to watch video.  If you can't see the video, watch it on You Tube  CLICK HERE: Puntarenas, Costa Rica




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