Tuesday, January 4, 2011
The Rain Forest: Truth in Advertising
Rain forest: a two word term which leads one to expect two things - rain and forest. Tortuguero National Park, with a yearly rainfall of about twenty feet and a seemingly impenetrable jungle canopy filled with enough green to make the Lantern, the Giant, and envy all jealous.
I spent two full days in and around Tortuguero National Park and only on the last day, as I prepared to depart, did the bashful sun make an appearance. Rain was a constant, barely letting up for much more than fifteen minutes at a time, killing my camera battery and drenching even my supposedly water-proof clothing. The sky's only variation in color during the day consisted of slight changes from one shade of gray to another. The Park, located on the Northeast coast of Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border, boasts sandy beaches, but the ocean currents are so powerful there swimming is not allowed.
Maybe to you all of this sounds like a prescription for a dull and rather wet vacation, but Tortuguero was one of the most worthwhile destinations I have ever visited, for here I found the real heart of Costa Rica and the two keys to the country's recent popularity as a tourist destination: the wildlife and the tico (the word Costa Ricans use when they refer to themselves) guides.
Even for a place whose economy is largely based on ecotourism, the nation's biological diversity is astonishing. I had never in my short life seen such variety in so short a time outside of a zoo. We took three separate excursions while in Tortuguero, one through the jungle and two in an open boat down the rivers and canals that cut through the Park. At times it seemed as if there was a new species of bird, reptile, insect, or mammal waiting around every corner of the path and every bend of the river.
To list each animal I saw would be almost mind-numbing - with the help of my family (whose cameras survived), I took a picture of everything I could. There was really no other way to possibly remember the cast members of the vast menagerie of different species constantly crossing our path.
The oropendula, sloth, howler monkey, poison dart frog, great curassow, and Jesus lizard are just a few of the characters I saw that make up Tortuguero's star-studded cast. With 250 mammals, almost 900 birds, 225 reptiles, 175 amphibians, and over 500,000 total animals species living in Costa Rica the mere hundred or so I personally saw are just a drop in the bucket. The tremendous variety and uniqueness of the fauna alone give me an excuse to return one day. The elusive tapir will one day be mine.
The privilege of spotting so many of nature's wonders would have been impossible without the other key to the success of my travels in Tortuguero and elsewhere - the guides. The Costa Rican government has managed to make use of their natural wonders like no other country in Central America. They have concentrated much of their educational resources on training an exceptional group of people knowledgeable about every facet of the nation's flora and fauna.
All of our guides were also quite fluent in English, meaning that not only did they know the answers to our questions, they could communicate their knowledge to those of us whose Spanish consists of Hola, gracias, cerveza (fun fact: the Ticos say birra for beer instead of cerveza), and maybe a few curse words.
At Tortuguero our tour group was especially lucky, drawing the services of Jorge Luis, who grew up in the nearby rain forest and had spent many a day and night tracking through the jungle as a hunter in his early years. Now working full-time for the Tourism bureau, Jorge proved to be a Costa Rican Renaissance man with an encyclopedic memory of native medicine and a child's excitement for the various forms of life that kept appearing as if on cue.
Most importantly though, Jorge (and our other guides and drivers throughout the trip) had an extraordinary ability to spot camouflaged animals hiding in the thick jungle canopy. Without his keen eyes (aided by our also quite capable boat captains) I would have never been able to find some of the participants in the rain forest's version of "Where's Waldo?". On a couple of occasions I couldn't see organisms located only several feet in front of my face - and I was not alone. The Jesus Lizard and the caiman were two of the more ingeniously hidden reptiles whose discover by Jorge left myself and others stunned at what appeared to be his superhuman eyesight.
On the third day our boat left Tortuguero on the hour long ride to our bus for San Jose. A car ride of four hours lay beyond our planned noon arrival in the capital. Monteverde was next on the agenda and the trip there would be a challenging one, mainly in regard to the integrity of my internal organs, some of which are still situated in the wrong places.
Next: Bouncing all the way to Monteverde.