Pura Vida For a Few Days
The inconsistent winter in Colorado was starting to take its toll. It was now February, and it had not really snowed since the new year started. It was getting hot, and my patience was wearing as thin as the snowpack. I wanted to ski powder, but that wasn't an option anywhere in the Western U.S. at this point. A change of pace was necessary. If the weather wasn't cooperating, I suppose I needed to temporarily relocate to the warm part of the world to actually enjoy the heat. The northwestern part of Costa Rica became home away from home for a week. I packed my backpack with some boardshorts, a camera and a few extra t-shirts, and met my folks at the airport in Liberia, CR.
From the window of the plane, I caught a glimpse of the active volcanos in Guatemala and Nicaragua.
We rented a car at the airport, and drove the 3 hours south to Playa Samara, a tiny surf town located in a stunningly beautiful and peaceful bay on the Pacific coast. Driving Costa Rica's roads is an adventure in itself, as a highway is no more than a two-lane road riddled with potholes and locals disobeying the speed limit. It can also mean being trapped behind a slow-moving bus for miles on the winding stretches.
Spending three days sitting on the beach under the same palm tree is a life-changing experience. Shutting off the real world is a beautiful thing. I focused solely on the John le Carre book in one hand, with a delicious piña colada in the other. In between chapters, the gentle waves provided a chance to cool off from the heat. It was the middle of the dry season, so the swells were not big enough to warrant real surfing; instead we spent hours perfecting our bodysurfing technique.
Each night, we would return to our bed and breakfast, run by a German couple who had decided to leave it all behind and live in paradise. Helping ourselves to a beer from the communal fridge, we would sit poolside for an hour or so before heading back into town for dinner on the beach. Costa Rican food is simple yet delicious, a casado is the meal of choice; featuring rice, black beans, a tortilla, plantains, a salad, and a choice of meat stew.
This ritual repeated itself day after day. I got used to not speaking English, and I did not miss it. There wasn't much to do, but that was exactly the point. La Pura Vida, as they say, does not consist of much.
Bijuagua and Finca Verde
Costa Rica is not just sun and beaches. Further inland, the country boasts some of the most diverse forest ecosystems in the world, situated high on the range of volcanos running down its center. We packed our bags and headed Northeast towards Bijuagua and the nearby Tenorio National Park, a seldom visited area on the north end of the popular Lake Arenal. Upon arriving in Bijuaga, we found our accommodations at Finca Verde, a small working farm in the rainforest on the flanks of Mt. Tenorio.
The town is situated in a microclimate zone, high on the continental divide between Tenorio and the neighboring Volcan Miravelles. Weather systems from the Pacific mix with air masses from the Caribbean, leading to high humidity and frequent rain squalls. However, the weather is contained to either side of the valley, so there are always clear skies to be found somewhere.
The finca is home to a huge variety of flora and fauna. Quails and other ground birds run freely around the grounds. We were greeted by a friendly and curious crested guan, which followed us around the farm as we explored. The bird had an affinity for Imperial, Costa Rica's national beer; we found it poking its beak into cases of the stuff night after night.
After making friends with the bird, we quickly noticed activity high in the treetops. Walking around the farm, we found three sloths hanging out in their natural habitat, a Cecropia tree. The sloth is truly a lazy animal, sleeping up to 18 hours a day, eating the bark and leaves of its host tree, only leaving the foliage to do its business on the ground.
From Finca Verde, we daytripped into Tenorio National Park to explore the Rio Celeste region, home to brilliant blue waters and exotic wildlife. Getting to the national park entrance required an hour's drive on one of the worst gravel roads I have ever been on. Thank god for 4-wheel drive and a low gear.
We finally made to the park, and hiked a few hours up the mountain through the lush rainforest, taking in the sights and sounds. The waters in Tenorio come from two separate sources and meet at a mixing point deep in the jungle. At their confluence, a precipitation of calcium carbonate occurs because of a difference in pH of the two sources, giving the river a milky blue color. The water's color is not due chemical processes, but due to a physical process called Mie Scattering, where certain wavelengths of light are refracted. The river reeks of sulfur, and no animals live anywhere near it.
The trail follows the milky blue waters, climbing down a steep set of stairs to a 30m tall waterfall. We ate lunch at the waterfall, listening to the soothing sound of the sulfuric water hitting the rocks far below. After lunch, we trekked back up the stairs to make it back to the car before it got too dark to drive home. Walking back on the trail near the entrance, we heard a great commotion coming from the treetops. Looking up, all I saw were leaves and branches rustling. Out of nowhere, a piercing shriek came from the tree directly above, immediately echoed by similar shrieks all around.
A family of Capuchin monkeys raced through the trees, curious to investigate the day's influx of visitors. I finally understood why they are named after monks; their heads have a black crown, much like a tonsure. Who knows what god they serve.
We made it back to Finca Verde before it got too dark to drive. The sloths were still hanging out in the same trees as before, having deemed it not necessary to move at all.
That evening, we ate dinner at the finca's Hummingbird Café, their outdoor kitchen and restaurant area. We ate delicious locally-sourced food and played cards late into the evening, surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest.
On our final day, Jorge, the keeper of Finca Verde, told us to check out the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. This area, about two hours to the north, is home to one of the most incredible arrays of birds in the world. Of course, the drive consisted of two rough hours on another horrendous gravel road, deep into the middle of nowhere.
Along the way, we passed through one of the largest of Costa Rica's controversial pineapple plantations, run by Upala Agricola. Pineapple fields stretched for miles, as far as the eye could see.
Costa Rica supplies nearly 60 percent of the world's pineapples, but at an environmental and social cost. Pineapples are a monocrop, and are extremely inefficient to grow, requiring the use of fertilizer and insecticide to grow profitably. This operation stands in stark contrast to the country's image as a Latin American success story and its commitment to the environment.
The thoughts of controversial pineapples quickly faded as we arrived in Caño Negro. The area itself is not particularly beautiful, at least compared to the beach or the rainforest. It is simply a muddy river running through flat farmland, emptying into a huge lakebed.
We hopped on a small riverboat with our guide, Joel, and started floating downriver. He explained the significance of the area as refuge for dozens of species of birds and fish, including heron, stork, toucan, and many more. As he spoke, a large green heron swooped past our boat.
As we floated on, I noticed activity in the water. Hundreds of caimans lived in the river, and were busy either feeding or lounging on the sunny riverbanks. Joel pointed out one bird after the other, explaining each one's characteristics and . It was like being in a zoo, except the animals were here on their own accord, and free to roam about.
Caño Negro's lakebed is a breeding ground for many migratory bird species. Joel beached the riverboat and led us up a small hill through the mud. Before us stood hundreds, if not thousands, of wood storks and egrets. Dozens more circled overhead, looking for a place to land. Our view was straight off the screen of a Discovery Channel nature documentary, except it was real. The huge pterodactyl-like birds were hauntingly beautiful, especially knowing that before me lay a sizable chunk of the threatened species's entire population.
Catarata del Bijuagua
After a full day of bird watching and floating down the river, we drove the few hours back to Bijuagua. That night, we stayed at Catarata del Bijuagua Lodge, owned and operated by a local family. Similar to Finca Verde, it had a few simple wood cabins strewn throughout the beautifully landscaped property. Where Finca Verde had a decidedly wild character to it, Catarata del Bijuagua Lodge had a more manicured look to it.
Deep in the rainforest, I strolled around the property, staring up at the ridge high above enveloped in fog. Two streams bordered the property, each with its own swimming holes and waterfalls to explore. A small hydroelectric generator installed in one powered the whole property. I jumped into one of the swimming holes and reveled in my surroundings. The water felt refreshingly cold after sweating in the boat all day.
The three of us went to bed early that night, after enjoying a few more Imperials over dinner. Life down there was about making the most of every day, enjoying the stunningly beautiful surroundings, communing with nature, and not overdoing anything. Pura Vida...I can dig that.