By Rory Winston
We were gringos once again and it wasn’t even Mexico. At least that’s how the laid back locals, the Tico, referred to us. Columbus had slept here, all right. That much was clear as we counted all the missing indigenous tribes: the Nahuatl, the Chibcha, all of them gone without a trace. In lieu of the loss, the conquistadores were gracious enough to leave behind their Spanish diminutives. Costa Rica was one of those unique places where there was a ‘cute’ way to say almost anything. Ironically, it was also a country where flora had a far more successful career than man. Nestled between the Caribbean and the Pacific, the “Rich Coast” (a literal translation of Costa Rica), was an environmentalist’s paradise. Though entire civilizations had vanished without a trace, trees were doing great. Likewise, folivores thrived. An industrious local, the three-toed-Sloth seemed to smirk at new arrivals between bouts of deeper slumber. Perhaps, he realized that our presence—like that of previous inhabitants— was transient.
What first appeared to be a toy-sized paddle steamer lodged in a shrub was Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn (finca-rblanca.co.cr), a white villa of a resort rocking amidst a sea of foliage. The majestic Gaudi-styled hotel peered out over a world of volcanoes and cloud forests. Though expansive suites came complete with kitchens, a sumptuous meal shared in the dining hall with fellow primates meant stories—often these involved less boastful species than the ones recounting them.
Strange noises continued to emanate from the wild. The invigorating scent of the nearby coffee plantation wafted past us. On this jutting knoll surrounded by looming Higuerón trees, we did what most visitors had probably done since the time of the explorers: we gaped, stared at the foreboding stars, and slept the sound sleep of those exhausted by anticipation.
Flying into the heart of the jungle the very next morning, we landed in Puerto Jimenez where the staff of Lapa Rios (laparios.com) awaited us like the polished representatives of a takeover government. While exuding an air of calm and civility, our well poised captors told us in no uncertain terms that this would be a good time to make any last minute phone calls as contact with the outside world would hereafter be an impossibility. No phones, no internet, no signals. Though I tried desperately to negotiate my wife’s release… no such luck. She’d be coming along. Shuffling us into a car, our hosts proceeded to drive us on a 45 minute run that ended with a fiery dash up a steep incline. Without the benefit of a blindfold, we had reached the summit.
While climbing out of the vehicle to stretch our limbs, I heard a sound that I first mistook for my wife yawning. It turned out to belong to a Howler Monkey. Like a first report, the solitary call incited a series of odd rejoinders. Soon, Macaws were greeting us from all directions. While my wife finally scampered off in pursuit of an Agouti, an inquisitive squirrel monkey (nearly extinct in other parts) looked at me with an eerie sense of recognition.
Sun-thatched bungalows with screened walls, furniture that melted seamlessly into the rain forest environment… each room in Lapa Rios was an installation art piece that attested to man’s capacity for camouflage. As the pitch black darkness of night had arrived, we opted for a guided after-dinner jungle hike.
Having donned rubber boots and bearing flashlights, we soon came upon a highly poisonous snake, the Ferdinand. River bats clambered their way through the air, large frogs croaked, while white faced monkeys darted out menacingly at every turn. We made our way, sidling along the river bed. After about an hour of trekking, we were ready for our own bed. From our stone-laid shower with its fresh waterfall sensation, we made our way to the bamboo queen-size bed with its romantic cascading nets. Surrounded by green orange and red garden motifs, we let the forest sing us to sleep.
Though the area is famous for surfing, we decided the next morning to go on another hike – this time into the Primary jungle. It was here we got a chance to participate in a rescue mission that none of us had anticipated or was likely to forget. Three quarters into our trip, our guide had noticed something amiss as a raccoon withdrew from the sound of monkeys shrieking frantically from tree tops. There, huddled amidst the brush, an injured baby spider monkey scratched at the earth beneath him in odd intervals. Running at top speed back to camp, we returned with our guide to deposit the injured monkey at the animal sanctuary. Later that day, we were told that our efforts had not been in vain. The monkey had made it. Walking along the white beaches while spray cooled our foreheads, we realized then that paradise was less about beauty, than about understanding.
Mangrove swamps, lagoons, vast tracts of verdure… we had been flown to Manuel Antonia, a lowland forest boasting 346 species of animal, 109 of which are mammals. Nestled in this heady region, Gaia hotel (gaiahr.com) reaffirmed its prestigious standing as a tropical paradise. Though more typical in the way of what one expects from exotic luxury, the 5 star resort had an abundance of hiking trails and included such specialized amenities as deep sea fishing and white water rafting. As for the copious suites, they reflected an insouciant vision for space coupled with an eye for recherché details. The furnishings struck a balance between minimalism and frivolity, and left the entire jungle looking like a chic set for a Donna Karan commercial. Jacuzzis, entertainment centers, King Size beds with 500 thread count linens, natural wood and stone floors… clearly, it was possible to redefine all of nature without cutting down a single tree.
But then again, maybe that’s what made us gringos. It wasn’t that we needed to customize nature in order to feel comfortable, but even the most green-hearted of us loved the ultimate in artifice: architecture made to highlight or enhance nature. No use denying it, we were theme-park creatures—sophistication only adding nuance and complexity to the game. Though we easily went without our Spanish counterpart’s celebrated diminutives, we insisted on our quotation marks. The sloth had made its point: conserve energy, hang around, and watch the wilderness go by. Even if we were just another transient civilization passing through, there was little point in spending all our time cataloguing loss. And so, on our final night, we sat there listening once again to the vibrant sounds of unfamiliar animals, all while relentlessly hunting for adjectives to describe a sense of even more unfamiliar awe. Watching each others hands glow beneath the moonlight, we did as children do. We reached up, attempting to filch a star that had died eons ago.