by Whit Gibbons

August 5, 2002

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

At least a small part of Costa Rica's charm and a large part of why it remains relatively unspoiled can probably be attributed to the condition of the roads. Making our way around the upper part of Lake Arenal on our way to Arenal Volcano was like traveling a dirt road in the Alabama backcountry after a heavy downpour. Though the road is ostensibly paved, gaping holes appear every few feet, and veering into the opposite lane to avoid potholes is a common practice. It's disconcerting to visiting gringos, but we miss a lot when we barrel along our interstates at 75 mph.

Our ecotour guides, David and Deborah Clark, were concerned that Arenal would be shrouded in clouds, as it often is. So when we rounded a bend and saw the volcano looming, they breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of us gasped. An active volcano has to be one of the most awe-inspiring sights in nature. The sheer raw power of it is enough to lend credence to those people who believed (and perhaps still do) that a volcano is a deity manifest.

As we sat on the porch of our cabina facing the northern slope of Arenal, clouds rolled in and obscured the massive mountain. That night, to our everlasting amazement, the clouds briefly parted and we saw lava, red and glowing, flow down the side of the volcano. The word "awesome" should be reserved for such natural wonders.

The next day we drove to a national park on the west side of the volcano. There we heard, saw, and smelled the formidable might of this towering giant. We left the park with a new respect for Mother Nature's fearsome power. A visit to hot springs later that day offered a less threatening view of the volcano's effects. As we lounged in one of the pools surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, David pointed out a sloth. True to its name and nature, the sloth hung placidly from a limb, never budging from its vantage point high above us.

Our last stop before returning to San Jose was a visit to the facility where David and Deborah have conducted their research in forest ecology for more than 20 years. La Selva Biological Station (La Selva means the forest, or jungle) is part of the Organization of Tropical Studies, a nonprofit consortium of more than 60 academic institutions from the United States, Latin America, Africa, and Australia.

We took a walk with David deep into the rain forest. Leaf-cutter ants, like miniature Chinese junks propelled by huge green sails, marched beside the trail. But the leaves they carried weren't to eat. "The ants," David explained, "are farmers. They mulch the leaves and use them in their nests to grow mushrooms." Minuscule in size compared to a volcano, the ants are nonetheless one of nature's marvels. In their own way, they too should inspire awe.

Before our trip to Costa Rica, David had emailed us pictures of some animals we might encounter, including peccaries, affectionately known as "piggies." Our neighbor Beth was intrigued with the pictures of the peccaries, and though we had to refuse her request to bring one back, we promised to be on the lookout for them. When four peccaries wandered out of the jungle, we followed them for a few minutes, taking pictures and making mental notes so we could tell Beth about her favorite denizen of the jungle.

On the riverbank we observed an episode from the Discovery Channel come to life: a chestnut-mandibled toucan struggled to turn a two-foot lizard into lunch. Watched by another toucan, another lizard, and eventually about 25 people, the toucan repeatedly seized the lizard in its beak. Time after time the lizard escaped, only to be recaptured and eventually consumed. Nature, red in tooth and claw, indeed.

Ecotourism: "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." May it flourish.

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