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Gringos in paradise.

Thirty-one American Forests members find that Costa Rica is a spectacular zoo from coast to cloud forest.

Have you ever been in a place where the environment seems to be on the move both day and night, and excitement waits around each bend in the road? Well, as 31 American Forests members discovered last January, if it creeps, crawls, flies, soars, sings, howls, or jumps, chances are you'll experience it in Costa Rica.

A country about the size of West Virginia with a population of three million, Costa Rica is nestled between two oceans with Nicaragua on its north and Panama on its south. Four mountain ranges--all of volcanic origin--form a continental divide down the center of the country, one determining factor in Costa Rica's tropical climate. The other factor is the season, usually characterized as either rainy (May-November) or dry (December-April). These two factors help this small country support an incredible range of biological diversity, and visitors are treated to a spectacular sight-and-sound show.

Our Costa Rican adventure was one of a series of foreign tours sponsored by American Forests. The tours, designed for members' enjoyment and education, focus on both cultural and natural-resource opportunities.

An informal survey taken after our previous tour--to Canada--showed it was time to set our sights south of the border. We began scouring Central and South America for exciting territory where upheaval or revolution was unlikely.

Costa Rica fit the bill. Its democratic government is enduring and peaceful, even though the country is situated in a region noted for turmoil and unrest. Costa Rica is unique in that it does not have a standing army. Instead, it has chosen to focus on such major issues as health (the life expectancy is more than 74 years) and education (the literacy rate in Costa Rica is 93 percent).

We appear to have made the right choice. Reservations came in from members in Maine, Washington, California, Florida, and many states in between, resulting in an early full booking and standbys waiting in the wings.

Our arrival at San Jose's Juan Santamaria International Airport (named for a 15-year-old drummer who became a national hero) should have served as a harbinger of what was in store. A fellow passenger had warned me that the capital city's airport was "a zoo." Her assessment proved accurate. Our arrival, delayed more than two hours by torrential rains in the Miami area, exacerbated an already zoo-like situation--several jumbo jets had deposited hundreds of impatient and anxious gringos onto facilities totally inadequate to handle even a lesser volume of traffic. Shouting, jostling, and confusion prevailed as we slowly found our way to our waiting bus.

Before departing San Jose for the hinterlands, we did the usual "touristy" things, like visiting the impressive Basilica of Our Lady of Los Angeles. Named for the country's patron saint, it is Costa Rica's most important religious site. We also made a short visit to Lankaster Gardens, with its hundreds of varieties of orchids and branch-hugging epiphytic bromeliads, plus one unfriendly tarantula.

After that, one of our guides, Cabeto, introduced us to what would become a very meaningful term for our group, whose average age was 72. The word was "technical," and it meant pit stops--his way of helping us spell relief. Tour leaders find that this important event often has a profound effect on the development and execution of the itinerary.

The three days we spent in the vicinity of the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and International Children's Rain Forest atop the Tilaran Range made it well worth the three-hour drive on a steep, winding, and bumpy road. This 50,000-acre tropical rainforest reserve is administered by the Tropical Science Center, a private conservation organization, and supported in large part by donations from all over the world.

Surprises waited around every corner. As our 16-passenger bus climbed the mountainside to this area of great biological richness, it sustained a blow-out on an inside dual that sounded every bit like a rifle shot. Since an important event--dinner--was waiting for us, there was a momentary halt while we assessed damage, and then the bus limped on to the lodge.

The Monteverde area was first settled in 1951 by a group of Quakers from Alabama who sought to establish a colony where peace, freedom, and self-sufficiency prevailed. Priority was given to carving farm fields out of the forest for food and house-raising, then to building a Friends School, and then to a dairy and cheese factory to serve the surrounding area. A small enclave of Quakers remain in the area, but the influx of outsiders has diversified the community. The transformation started about the time the cloud forest reserve was established in 1971, attracting hundreds of biologists and support worldwide.

Much of that support was to protect the endangered tapir, a hoofed animal with a proboscis-like nose, and birds like the resplendent quetzal, which sports a two-foot-long tail. Now "eco-tourist" facilities have sprung up to accommodate the ever-increasing number of visitors, despite the Tropical Science Center's strict daily quota of visits to the Reserve.

The area isn't without controversy, however. Noise, pollution, and commercialism are all concerns, as are land purchases that expand the Reserve and strain the harmony between conservation, development interests, and the surrounding communities.

We were fortunate to have not only excellent weather but also guides and drivers who made a good itinerary even better. They included such extras as a behind-the-scenes visit to a restaurant kitchen and roadside stops to pick up cookies, candies, and the tastiest of melons, thereby ensuring our survival until the next scheduled meal. An abundance of delicious seafood (generally fish), fruits and vegetables, and a variety of treatments for rice and beans dominated the menus.

Because Costa Rica is so compact, incredible biodiversity--represented by more than a dozen life zones and reflected in the rich plant and animal life--can be viewed in a relatively short period of time. The country teems with native and exotic birds and dozens of other species, including more than 50 of hummingbirds, more than 200 mammals, and more than 400 butterflies.

As your eye scans from the treetops to the forest floor, you are likely to see bromeliads, orchids, rope-like lianas hanging to the ground from branches, termite nests, butterflies, lizards, and all kinds of birds, including the quetzal. At the ground level you'll see leaf-cutter ants doing their impression of a sailboat regatta as they carry bits of leaves for storage, an ugly four-foot iguana flipping its head menacingly when someone invades its comfort zone, or perhaps a variety of lizards scurrying about. And no Costa Rican trip would be complete without hearing howler monkeys communicate about territorial rights and seeing white-faced monkeys' heavily branched "apartment trees."

I was able to provide our group with some firsthand experience about a basic rule: There can be danger in invading a species' territory. Upon stepping out of our cabin in the LaPacifica research area, I was zapped on the head by a wasp. I've been bitten by U.S.-type wasps and bees, but this one must have had an intense dislike for gringos. The attack was so violent, I looked around to see what person had struck me. Despite being of strong Scandinavian stock, I had to seek out our group's walking drugstore--New Jerseyite Virginia Dreby--for some benadryl to counteract the reaction.

Costa Rica has been at the forefront of tropical countries in establishing a system of national parks and reserves amounting to about 24 percent of its land area. During our travels, we observed vast areas of steep, erodible hillsides cleared to provide pasture; a debate ensues over the appropriateness of this scale of land use. From our perspective, it appeared that restoration of the original cover on much of that land would result in multiple benefits for the local people and the country as a whole. That would seem prudent. The Costa Rican government has seen the social, economic, and environmental benefits of forests. It is actively seeking private investors to help plant fast-growing species like teak and gmelina to provide income as the country's international market share diminishes for products like coffee.

Our trip was filled with unexpected bonuses: watching a baselisk lizard tiptoeing across the water, having a barn owl's distinctive face appear in a hole in a bank on the Bebedero River, seeing fledgling owls scurrying to hide, or getting a 5 a.m. "wakeup call" when a howler monkey dispute caused the neighborhood dogs and goats to join in the chorus.

Costa Rica saved the biggest surprise for last. Just after retiring on our final night there, we experienced a minor earthquake and an aftershock. When we asked our guides and drivers about it the next morning, they called it a common occurrence and said the "ticos" prefer to call them only "tremors."

We weren't sure what message, if any, the "gods" were trying to send us. Possibly they were suggesting we not return or, on a more positive note, saying, "Come back again soon and experience it all again." The group preferred to think it was the latter, and so AMERICAN FORESTS will sponsor another Costa Rican tour January 22 through February 2, 1994. If you're interested in joining us in one of the most diverse and beautiful countries in the Americas, please write: AMERICAN FORESTS, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013 or call 202/667-3300 for further information.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Programs.; US forest conservationists in Costa Rica
Author:Tikkala, Bill
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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