by Whit Gibbons

July 29, 2002

My sister Anne Gibbons and her husband, Bill Fitts, recently returned from a two-week trip to Costa Rica. At my request, they wrote an account of their travels. This is the first of two parts.

We began planning the trip to Costa Rica about three years ago with our friends Wayne and Anita Smith. We read guidebooks, surfed the Net, and emailed our hosts in Costa Rica. None of our research prepared us for the splendor of this small Central American country.

David and Deborah Clark were our hosts. They are forest ecologists who have worked in the Costa Rican rain forest for the past 23 years. You couldn't ask for better ecotour guides. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." We were enthusiastic ecotourists, taking nothing but photographs, leaving nothing but footprints. (We didn't know it at the time, but the United Nations has designated 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism.)

After two nights in San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, we set off on the Pan American Highway for the Pacific Coast. The Pan American Highway, a system of roads that extends almost nonstop from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the tip of South America, is not reminiscent of our interstate system. At least the portion we traveled is not. The speed limit on much of the highway is 80 kmh (about 46 mph).

As we tooled along, Deborah pointed out interesting sights to us: wooden carts pulled by sturdy oxen; deep green expanses of coffee plantations ascending the mountainsides; rice fields of bright green stretching into the horizon; an occasional monkey swinging in a tree. We crossed river after river via narrow bridges, some only a single lane with a sign on one side instructing the driver to yield to an approaching vehicle.

La Playa Grande at Tamarindo is a spectacular stretch of unspoiled beach. Though we visited during the rainy season, the weather gods smiled upon us. Cloudless skies greeted us almost every morning. During an estuary tour through the mangrove forest, we marveled at termite nests more than four feet wide built in the crooks of trees. Leaving the boat at one point and trotting along behind Henry, our barefoot guide, we crossed salt flats and headed to a section of the forest where monkeys sometimes gather.

The monkeys were absent that day, but we saw common black-hawks soaring overhead and multicolored crabs, a favorite prey of the hawks, scuttling into their sandy sanctuaries as we approached. Back in the boat, we caught a glimpse of a crocodile as it slithered into the water, and we admired the graceful flight of a little blue heron, a white ibis, and a ringed kingfisher.

Henry was again our guide when we went snorkeling in the clear waters of the Pacific. He pointed out iridescent blue fish and schools of minnows. But we spotted the snake on our own. We have since learned it was almost certainly a Pacific sea snake, a highly venomous snake in the cobra family. Fortunately, we had no desire to do more than admire the snake as we floated above it. And the snake showed no interest in us.

Costa Rica is a bird-watcher's paradise. During our stay at the beach, we saw flocks of raucous green parakeets, woodpeckers busily extracting insects from beneath tree bark, scarlet macaws, flycatchers, pelicans, anhingas, black vultures, great-tailed grackles, hummingbirds, and magnificent frigatebirds. We also saw lizards ranging in size from half the length of your little finger to more than three feet from nose to tail.

Although she wasn't in the wild, one of the most intriguing animals we encountered was Lucy, the nine-week-old orphaned howler monkey adopted by the beach resort's staff. Wearing a tiny pair of diapers, Lucy clambers happily onto your outstretched arm, scoots onto your shoulder, and settles down with her tail curled around your neck--until the person next to you begs for a chance to hold her.

Next week: We travel to Arenal Volcano and to the rain forest in the province of Heredia.

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