Costa Rica – Images by Lee Foster
by Lee Foster

Many potential travelers yearn to see and understand what a tropical rain forest encompasses. Such a traveler would like to be guided by an informed naturalist, hopefully on a trip that is comfortable rather than arduous, and with the costs kept within reason.

Such a trip is possible today in Costa Rica, which offers some of the most stunning biodiversity in the Americas. The providers of this travel experience are certain small cruise ships, which operate nature-oriented cruises,  employ talented biologists as guides, and visit four major, remote national parks and refuges along the country’s Pacific Coast on a week’s outing. Days are spent hiking in the parks with the naturalist, savoring nature. At night, you return to the comfort of your floating hotel, the ship, which sails through the night to the next park.  (Consult a travel agent professional to see who is offering these cruises now.

The cost is competitive with other cruise experiences and makes a satisfying adult or family excursion. The boat is intimate and the cabins are adequate, though not luxurious. The emphasis in on-board lectures is the wonders of nature, carefully conveyed to the inquisitive layman.

Nature in Costa Rica

Costa Rica gets such a favorable press about its natural resources that the skeptical traveler wonders: Can it be true?

After going there, and comparing it with other travel experiences, including other tropical rain forests, my answer is: Yes, it is true. Costa Rica has the plants, animals, and scenery to offer an extraordinary, insightful vacation trip. In this setting a small cruise ship has an appealing formula to deliver the experience.  A comfortable, small ship takes the traveler, like some imaginary migrant bird, to various pristine locales on the west coast.

The statistics for Costa Rica’s natural treasures are awesome, but even beyond them, it is the complex relationships within a tropical rain forest that truly excite wonder in travelers making their first encounter.

Although a small country, Costa Rica has about five percent of all the species of plants and animals known on earth. About 500,000 unique plant and animal species have been catalogued in Costa Rica.

This biotic cornucopia occurred partly because of the fortunate environment of the country, which has year-around tropical warmth, considerable moisture, and elevation changes. The other contributing factor to this biological land of plenty is its geographic position as the land bridge between North and South America. Species have been crossing this bridge regularly in migrations north and south, though primarily from north to south.

Costa Rica has more than twice the bird species found in the U.S. and Canada.  About 850 bird species flourish here.

The country has as many plant species as all of Europe. Because the warm climate has not been disturbed by glaciation, some plants that botanists speculate flourished at the time of the dinosaurs can still be found here. Tree ferns are an example.

There are more butterfly species here than in all of Africa. About 10 percent of the world’s butterfly species exist here.

Over 800 species of ferns alone can be found in the Costa Rican rain forests.

Over 1,200 species of orchids, the national flower, have been identified here.

Six of the world’s seven sea turtle species nest in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s main challenge now is balancing its need for income and growth from tourism development with the desire not to damage the ecosystems that create tourism interest. Tourism is the #1 income source now for the country, surpassing coffee, with sugar and bananas farther down the list.

Cutting the rain forests for hardwood and to create cattle pastures has been the traditional destroyer of Costa Rica’s resources. About 20 percent of the country’s original rain forest area remains intact today. About 10 percent is pure wilderness, with the rest in multi-use forest preserves.

Beyond spectacular facts about nature, a few days with a competent biologist reveals many insights into life in a tropical rain forest, such as:

Nutrients in temperate climate forests are stored in the ground, but, in tropical forests, nutrients are stored in the huge biomass at the top levels of trees. The ground is relatively nutrient-bare, which is why agriculture and cattle ranching in tropical rain forests often fare so poorly.

Throughout the forest plants wage a quiet but deadly battle for sunlight. How to get light at the least expense of energy is the game. For example, the strangler fig vine climbs a tree, puts out its full leaf at the top, and gradually chokes the tree to death. Among animals, there is an eternal battle between prey and predators. That leaf in the leaf pile may be a moth in camouflage. That gaudy red frog may be so toxic that no predator with instinctual memory will touch it.

Here are some stops that a small cruise ship itinerary may include:

Curu National Wildlife Refuge

Curu is noted for its mangrove swamps, protectors of a large range of water birds.

In Curu you also meet howler monkeys, which sound literally like jets making a pass over a distant place in the forest. At some point during the walk, you are likely to find a clan of howler monkeys passing overhead. The Guinness Book of Records calls them the noisiest of animals.

The biologist on my trip proved to have an uncanny ability to call birds and monkeys, using his own voice to mimic their calls.

He showed me on Curu a spectrum of fauna and flora, from bats to squirrels, monkeys to lizards, parakeets to hummingbirds, spiders to mushrooms.

Curu boasts five distinct habitats, each with its own web of plant-animal relationships. On hikes you may walk through semi-deciduous forests, deciduous forests, hill forests, mangrove lagoons, and shore woodlands.

The afternoon after the Curu hike was spent at nearby Tortuga Island, an hour boat ride away. Tortuga offers one of the country’s lovelier white-sand beaches, ideal for swimming and kayaking.

Corcovado National Park

Corcovado is the most substantial and magnificent tropical rain forest in Costa Rica. It is not only large, but also remote and little explored. A small cruise ship lets you access the park at a choice, idyllic location.

As the days proceed, you find yourself wanting to see new and different species.

In Corcovado we saw a lavish number of birds, especially scarlet macaws, parrots, and toucans. Our guide carried a powerful Bausch and Lomb spotting scope, mounted on a tripod. The scope pulled distant birds up close for viewing.

Having seen howler monkeys, we were happy to encounter in Corcovado the white-faced capuchin monkeys and red-fur spider monkeys.

The dangers of the forest make it prudent always to be with the guide, following directions. One person in our party narrowly missed stepping on a fer de lance snake, only a couple of feet long, but deadly poisonous.

Among plants that day, we delighted in orchids and cacao (from which chocolate is made). We made the acquaintance of a huge tree in the forest, known as the garlic tree, which spreads out its rocket-like fins to support the tree’s massive weight. Tree roots in the tropics seldom go down beyond the shallow surface into the nutrient-bare clay soils, so trees often develop elaborate fin systems to support the trunk.

The afternoon at Corcovado was spent at the remote village of Aquijitas on Drakes Bay, a lagoon that has changed little since Sir Francis Drake passed this way in 1579. Visitors can tour this village and see how the people live without central electricity.

Adjacent to the village is a jungle river that can be toured by rubber dingy boat or kayak about a mile up the river, allowing views of iguanas, tree sloths, monkeys, and herons.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio consists of 1,700 acres of choice tropical forest, known as a Humid Tropical Forest, with flora and fauna of both a Dry and Humid Forest.

Bordered by water and development, the park is threatened with over-use because of its excellent sand beaches and easy road access, which attracts some travelers who have insufficient understanding of the need to relate to the forest animals in an appropriate way. Feeding the monkeys, for example, disrupting their normal food-gathering pattern, has disturbed the natural environment of the park.

In Manuel Antonio I was able to add further species to my checklist. I saw squirrel monkeys, the fourth and final species in Costa Rica of those remarkable dwellers atop the tree canopy.

High in the trees there were also slow-motion sloths, moving ponderously to the tops of the trees to catch the noonday warmth.

Iguana family reptiles, ctenosaurus similis, roughly two feet long, stood silent guard over the park.

My guide pointed out golden silk spiders, whose strands of web are supposedly stronger than steel wire of the same diameter.

Agouties, a rodent, and coatimundi, the medium-size ground dweller, rounded out the mammal list.

Among birds, I saw brown pelicans near shore and frigate birds overhead.

Six-inch-long grasshoppers, called zebra grasshoppers, munched away at leaves. One small plant, the mimosa, has a trigger mechanism to curl up its leaves when bitten by a grasshopper or other browsing animal.

Leaf-cutter ants cleared and killed areas of the forest, allowing access to sunlight. The ants cut leaves, take them underground, compost them, and live from the fungi that grow on their compost.

Huge ceiba trees, the largest tree in Costa Rica, dotted the park. Ceibas were sparsely rather than densely placed, as is the reality in tropical rain forests, where there are many species of trees, but relatively few individuals from any species in a given area.

Sea kayaking was enjoyable amidst the rock formations at the end of lavish Manuel Antonio beach.

Cano Island Biological Reserve

Cano Island, ten miles off the Osa Peninsula, is one site at which to see evidence of the people of Costa Rica before European contact. Artifacts dated from as early as 500 A.D. include stone spheres and burial items, which are only imperfectly understood. Apparently, Cano was an important ritual site for burials and other spiritual expressions. The indigenous people felt the island had magical qualities. Two of the large stone spheres, including one a meter in diameter, can be seen today along the trail. The round stones were cut on the mainland and brought to Cano to be placed at gravesites. It’s a mystery as to how and why these heavy objects were created, without any machine tools, and why they were brought here.

Cano offered the best snorkel and scuba opportunities on this trip. With a snorkel, I could see the coral reef and and an abundance of fish, such as parrotfish, moorish idol, and king angelfish.

A walker on Cano is likely to encounter snakes, none of which are poisonous. We were fortunate to find, under the watchful eye of our biologist , a snake that he called a garden snake. Other pleasures of a Cano Island walk are huge bromeliads, perched on trees, and immense philodendron leaves, which measured two feet across. As well as a burial site, the ancient people used the island as an orchard for a tree, called the milk tree. The natives drank the sap, so our guide cut a gash with his knife and we all took a ritual sip.

Logistics for Costa Rica Travel

A traveler gets to experience this adventure by flying into the Costa Rica capital, San Jose, which is located in the central highlands. From there the cruise company will bus you down to the west coast port, Puntarenas, for embarkation.

Costa Rica is a special country in Latin America, whose 4.5 million people have a long tradition of democracy and relative peace. Most North Americans think that Latin America is entirely a turbulent economic and political disaster zone, but that is partially because we are uninformed about Costa Rica. The country has its problems, but has more opportunities than other Latin American nations. Aside from its huge natural resources, Costa Rica has invested in its people.  Literacy runs to 93 percent, health care is relatively good, income distribution is fairly egalitarian, and income per person ranks third (after the U.S. and Canada) in the Americas.

If there is time for a day of exploring in the region before or after the cruise, the intimate hotel Grano de Oro, which refers to the coffee bean as the golden grain, makes a good base.

An interesting experience available near San Jose is an entity known as the Butterfly Farm, an example of the changing commercial use of the rain forests. At the Butterfly Farm the caretakers gather wild butterfly pupae, hatch out the butterflies, and get the entire cycle going in captivity. They then replenish any wild supply they have reduced. Within the tented enclosures of the Butterfly Farm you can see and understand the cycle of the butterfly in Costa Rica as you watch hundreds of colorful species flit about. The butterflies generated in captivity are sold commercially to various butterfly display areas around the world, supplying about 120,000 butterflies per year to entities such as the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Almost a hundred families get their livelihood in Costa Rica from this small, non-destructive use of the rain forest, an example of sustainable use of a resource. Butterfly Farm was founded by a Dutch national named Joris Brinkerhoff.

Saving the Rain Forests

Tropical rain forests, which contain about half of all living species, will be saved only to the extent that people delight in them, comprehend the importance of their biodiversity, and see their potential economic value, such as in future drugs or in various sustainable uses, including tourism.

Tropical rain forests are gone forever when they are destroyed. The intricate interdependence of various species makes it impossible to restore them. For example, we saw a bull’s horn acacia tree in the Curu mangrove swamps. A certain species of ant lives in this acacia only. The acacia tree provides a home for the ants and a nutrient-rich sap as food. The ants ward off other predators that would destroy the vulnerable acacia. If a browsing animal, whether a caterpillar or a monkey, starts nibbling the acacia leaves, the ants will attack it. Moreover, the ants clear the ground of any new seedlings, which might compete for light with the acacia as they grow. This relationship of ant and acacia has evolved over a long period. If the acacia tree or the ants died, the other species would also die. If the acacias of that rain forest were cut, the ants would perish. Even if you could re-sprout the acacias, they would not survive without the ant, which would have been eliminated in the interim.c

Only after going to see tropical rain forests, such as those in Costa Rica, does a traveler have a tactile understanding of thse huge resources and become a vocal and knowledgeable part of the constituency to preserve them.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Erin, thanks for your note. You have a lot of expertise to offer the Costa Rica traveler. I’d like everyone to be aware of Erin’s travel planning app on Costa Rica in the iTunes App Store.

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