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june 28, 2005 -> safe central America: Costa Rica

The problem with Costa Rica is that is so small, beautiful and safe. Unlike most of its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica has a long history of peaceful democracy. The “peace dividend” has been paid in tourism – chiefly American tourism. Early to bank on the ecotourism boom, Costa Rica has developed an impressive collection of ecolodges, canopy tours and ‘extreme' adventures to showcase its jungles, beaches and volcanoes. Everyone in the tourism industry speaks English, and you can use US dollars anywhere – Americans just love it. Thousands of American retirees live in the country – I met one who had lived there seventeen years and still spoke only rudimentary Spanish. At times, Costa Rica feels like a part of Disney World's Epcot Center, full of amusing diversions, canned cultural experiences and T-shirt salesmen – it's almost like you're in a foreign country.

On the map, Tortuguero National Park looks remote. But Costa Rica is a tiny country; it took just half a day to get there using public transportation. We left San Jose in the early morning, switched buses in a small town, and finally crammed into a longboat that sped down a narrow canal that led to a brown river. We saw howler, capuchin and spider monkeys en route. Toucans and macaws flapped overhead while pretty kingfishers skimmed the river's surface. We arrived at the small village of Tortuguero in the early afternoon. The little town sat at the confluence of three rivers, and a dozen boats zipped about taking tourists on wildlife-watching cruises. In the late evening, we joined eight other tourists and our guide and walked the short distance to the Caribbean coast. There were two other large groups ahead of us. Our guide told us to walk in single file, but only we understood English. Soon everyone was walking abreast.

After a short walk, we made out a knot of tourists circled around a small pit. When we got closer, we saw an enormous green turtle at the bottom, moving sand with powerful flipper strokes. It was a female, burying the eggs that she had just laid. Tortuguero Beach is the most important nesting site of the green turtle in the Western Hemisphere. I don't what I had expected, but this wasn't it. At least thirty people had crowded around the poor turtle. No one was allowed to bring their cameras, and only the guides were permitted to shine their flashlights on the turtle, but I still felt uncomfortable. We were harassing an endangered animal during one of the most important parts of its breeding cycle. The turtle didn't appear bothered by our presence, but then turtles can't exactly roar or lash out at someone that gets too close. When the turtle turned around and flopped clumsily back to the ocean, two lines of tourists followed it to the water.

The three-hour speedboat journey south from Tortuguero to Puerto Limon felt like a roller-coaster ride. Our captain had memorized every twist of the canals, which we shot through at high velocity, clipping palm fronds on tight corners. Green Jesus lizards skittered away, caimans submerged, and hundreds of egrets and herons took flight as we roared past. The imposing green mass of the jungle was softened with great bursts of yellow and purple flowers in the canopy. As we neared Puerto Limon, we saw a large group of black vultures picking apart a carcass near the water. One of the vultures was much larger than the rest, and had colorful puffin-like coloration on its face. A few days later, we learned that we had seen a king vulture – a very rare bird. “Birdwatchers fly from the US and Europe in the hope of seeing one of those,” a guide told us. Once in Puerto Limon, we quickly caught a bus to Puerto Viejo, a fun party town on the Caribbean coast that had a reputation for good surfing.

Like most of the Central America countries, the population of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast is primarily black, or Afro-Caribbean. Brought from the islands to work on fruit plantations or cut timber centuries ago, they developed a culture very different from the mestizo population of the central highlands and the Pacific coast. For one, they speak English, though you can be forgiven for not understanding the thick, Jamaican-style accent. Dark men with surfers' physiques and long, scraggly dreadlocks smoked pot and pursued white women. The large number of mulatto kids running around Puerto Viejo was a testament to their success. The laid-back ‘island life' had its attractions, but many of the locals were extremely poor and crime was a serious problem. I left my mud-caked hiking boots outside my hotel room to dry and they were gone the next morning. Our German hotel owner, Rolf, struggled to find reliable, honest workers. He had ended up hiring Indians. Some attributed the economic malaise of the Caribbean coast to African indolence, but there was no doubt that the Latino authorities in San Jose tended to ignore these areas when it came to the national budget.

On our last full day on the coast, Rolf and his Costa Rican wife took us on their “Bushmaster” tour of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge, a small, but incredibly diverse park near the Panamanian border. We got up very early, and drove south along the coastal road. We had told Rolf that we hoped to see a sloth, which he recorded with annoying nonchalance. “Sometimes we see a dozen while driving.” After just ten minutes, Rolf pulled over and pointed to the top of a papaya-like cecropia tree. Three-toed Sloth! Nori and I were delighted. We borrowed Rolf's binoculars and looked at the bizarre, stoned-looking animal hanging upside-down from a limb. Rolf said that sloths were part of an ancient branch off the evolutionary tree, and are related to anteaters and armadillos. “They don't have normal teeth,” he explained, “And unlike most mammals they have an irregular body temperature. Their temperature drops dramatically in the night and they have to hang like a towel under the sun to warm up.”

Jungle tours can disappoint; you rarely see the advertised hundreds of species of anything except bugs. But Nori and I had lost our jungle naïveté and expected to see nothing. However, Rolf was a trained biologist who had spent years exploring the park and his wife had incredible eyesight. Our early start also meant that we had a bird-filled jungle to ourselves. Toucans croaked like frogs, macaws screeched, woodpeckers rattled and Montezuma oropendulas burbled like falling water. Rolf's wife spotted three different species of eyelash vipers – small but venomous snakes with curling, Revlon lashes. We saw a helmeted basilisk – like a mini-dinosaur – and dozens of brown anolis lizards. Rolf knew all of the plants and trees; I was scribbling notes like crazy to keep up.

But the highlight for me of the jungle trek was when I found a red-eyed leaf frog sleeping on the underside of a wide leaf. Rolf had told us that they were very difficult to find. These beautiful nocturnal frogs – the de facto symbols of Costa Rican ecotourism – become almost invisible when they close their red eyes and pull in their legs to hide their tiger-striped sides and orange footpads. Small and green, they are perfectly camouflaged against the jungle plants. Rolf carefully pulled the frog from its hiding place and stretched out its legs to show us its yellow and blue side stripes. The frog's long green fingers ended in bright orange discs. The drowsy frog opened its eyes only briefly and then fell asleep in Rolf's hand.