Wild ‘glamping’ Trip Brings Rainforest Back to Life

We were on a rural gravel road going through the rainforest when my aunt and cousin heard what seemed like a dinosaur roar and saw the trees shake.

“Dustin, Dustin! Can you stop and go back?”  I mean, sure why not.  Jurassic Park was only filmed in Costa Rica.  They didn’t really bring dinosaurs back to life, right?  

Howler monkey with mouth open
Howler Monkey

I slowly pulled to the side of the road and we began to crane our necks up toward the rainforest canopy to see what was going on. It turned out we had stumbled upon a pack of howler monkeys that really do sound like a T-rex. 

At first, I didn’t even want to get out of the car, as it was just another pack of monkeys in the trees, but my aunt had never seen monkeys in the wild. Thanks to her literally starting a conversation with them, we learned there was more than one pack, they were much closer to us than we thought and they had babies!

I rarely encounter wildlife this far out from civilization, but when I do it’s special.  With humans roving into all parts of the planet it was really cool to see monkeys that roar at you like they are trying to communicate with aliens. It was so far out, it felt like we were on another planet – or that I was in Jurassic Park, expecting a dinosaur at any moment.

We never did see any dinosaurs, of course, but I know have a new favorite Jurassic Park moment, courtesy of my aunt. She showed me new ways to experience the rainforest, only a couple of months after I wrote a column about how it no longer excited me.

Because she and my cousin were visiting me on vacation, we had decided to to find some of the most isolated and pristine beaches in Costa Rica, and that meant pushing the envelope. We took a ferry from the former port town of Puntarenas to the tip of the secluded Nicoya peninsula and hopped on a windy, two-lane road going into the mountains.

Aside from a few small towns or “bumps in the road,” as my dad would say, all we saw along that road were vast expanses of farmland, national reserves and the occasional breathtaking view of the ocean.

Eventually, the road ended and we came to the property. I call it that because we had rented a house, but it was nothing like what I expected. The jungle was amazingly manicured, and the “house” lacked doors and windows.

This place had it all, minus the doors and windows. There were pools, gardens, a pool table, a private beach, and of course, plenty of bat droppings. There was a waterfall a five-minute walk from the property on yet another secluded beach that we would have visited more if we didn’t already have our own private beach to enjoy.  

beach panoramic
Our view and beach below…

I was informed this kind of vacationing was called  “glamping.” and it’s something I would never have chosen on my own had I known what it was.  I’m a sucker for peer pressure though and my aunt, who fears no risk, was in charge. She brought me a hammock with a built-in mosquito net so I could sleep on the balcony overlooking the sea.  

The first night was incredible, as a thunderstorm ended up putting us to sleep. I had envisioned myself dozing off to a music on my phone, but nature was too intense not to take it all in.

Crab in the brush
A crab from our night walk, during the day

One night, we drove to a nearby beach and were truly amazed. We hadn’t realized while walking along the tide line in the darkness, that we were right at the bottom of a cliff. When we started to hear waves coming from the shore we became so puzzled until we turned to see the sound was actually reflecting off the cliff we’d been walking along the base of.  The water reaches the cliff during high tide, so this was really a treat, to see the underside of the sea and the caves and creatures that live there.

On our way back, it started to rain a bit, and when we arrived, the jungle was alive and well. The sounds of the crickets, frogs, and the combination of the tap-tap of the water falling through the canopy made it jungle-spooky.  

It was just quiet enough for one errant sound to provoke sheer fear and… thankfully, no dinosaur sightings. But I had to get out of the car to open the gate, and at that moment I could have sworn I was in the movie.

Looking back, I can’t get out of my head how wild that trip was.

Next weekend, I’m traveling to the beach again and I am disappointed already knowing my lodging has doors and windows. It will be a relaxing, fun timebut it will quickly blur into all the other typical trips I’ve done to the beach.

This one will stay with me, and the stories will probably get better over time. However, unlike that one time I almost caught a humongous fish with my uncle, I have video proof of my aunt talking to monkeys.

It’s hard to be amazed as a jungle connoisseur…

What’s about half the size of a hippo, but not aggressive?

Tapir looking for food
A hippo-anteater hybrid: The tapir!

That would be a tapir, and some people might want to punch me in the face if I said I went to the Corcovado rainforest and this was the only thing I thought worth mentioning.

Corcovado National Park is isolated in the southwest corner of Costa Rica and is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. I had read a lot about the park and finally decided it was time to see it for myself.

To get there, you boat through canals on what could pass for the set of Jurassic Park, then hit the open ocean to make a beach landing on one of the few primary rainforests left in the world.

For most any visitor, this would be the trip of a lifetime and I was hoping for a great experience.  But honestly, I’d be pressed to remember much of this visit because I’d done and seen most of it before.

Our visit started out traversing the ocean, which could be an experience in itself. Though I had never been in that much open water in such a small watercraft, I wanted to avoid seasickness, so I daydreamed, studying the coastline for jagged rock formations, to take my mind off the rolling waves. I’d seen many similar coastlines up and down the pacific side of Costa Rica before and this was nothing special.

There was no dock at the beach, so we had to jump in the water barefoot to get to shore. It was an exotic beach with the rainforest right at the edge, but it was familiar to me as it reminded me of the beaches in Manuel Antonio and Samara.

coati running
This is a coati!

Even when we saw a coati looking for food as we approached the ranger station, I didn’t bother taking my camera out. I’d seen these in La Fortuna many times before.

We started hiking and encountered a beautiful group of red scarlet macaws, each with a mate and a few with children. They were having a lively conversation while eating their lunch in the trees and gave us many photo opportunities.

Of course, these things fly all around Jaco and the Carara National Park, all places I’ve been.  This would be the equivalent of taking a picture of a squirrel.

That’s when it hit me. In a way, I’d seen it all. That’s why this trip been so ho-hum despite all the adventure it had taken to get to this point.

I recalled going to other national parks and being intrigued by everything, but Corcovado just couldn’t turn the switch for me. We’d go on to see a spider monkey, sloth, herron and some capuchin monkeys, but it was so “been there, done that” for me.

howler monkey hanging out
No big deal, it’s just a monkey..

I was actually disappointed we didn’t see all four types of monkeys that are in the park. It felt no different from Tortuguero, a national park in northeast Costa Rica I visited two years ago.

The most drama on the trip was me forgetting things and Mother Nature making me pay, like getting sunburned and drenched (only in Costa Rica can you get that combo that quickly) on a 1.5hr hike without a change of clothes.

I’ve been dumb before, and I’ll be dumb again so thank goodness I saw the tapir to have more than just a funny story to laugh about in the future. But even at that, the reality is watching the tapir was as about as exciting as watching a cow graze.

All this is not to say Corcovado isn’t a great place to visit. I just have higher expectations for my forests now that I’ve been living in Costa Rica since 2013.  I can’t believe the non-effect it had on me. A first-time rainforest visitor would fill an entire scrapbook.

I’ve really been spoiled by rainforests though, and they really have to work hard to amaze me. I still have a few parks on my list left to visit, and I hope one of them will spark some excitement.

I now know what guides and rangers must feel like. Our guide spent over an hour tracking the tapir and was noticeably excited when he spotted it.  At least now, he’ll have something to want to talk about at dinner.

Taking the Scenic Route to Tortuguero

tortuguero boat dock

I swung myself up over the side of the narrow ten passenger boat, that would take me into the unknown or at least to “the lesser known.”  The boat wobbled unevenly as I made my way to my seat and I immediately noted the absence of life jackets and paddles, as well as the beer in the hand of our “captain” as he fired up the engine.  It was 9AM and this was already shaping up to be a ‘Captain Ron’ experience.  He had all his eyes but less teeth than Grampa Simpson. 

It's not that difficult to get there.....
It’s not that difficult to get there…..

In all my time in Costa Rica, I have stuck to visiting places that can be reached by car and maintain some resemblance of civilization.  This time, however, I wanted a little more adventure.  I had always heard about Tortuguero, a small community on the northern Caribbean coast. It was in the middle of nowhere or as the locals say, “the anus of the world”. Therein lies Tortuguero’s appeal: its proximity to the ocean and the surrounding rainforest, and the fact that it is only accessible by plane or boat.  I would soon

realize that just the journey to Tortuguero alone would highlight the trip.

The journey to get to the boat had started in the capital city of San José on paved roads and then continued through a side-winding, hair-raising mountain pass. The route forms a part of a majestic national park, but the scenery is difficult to enjoy when you have to be prepared for landslides, rain, fog, or a broken down vehicle at every turn.

After a couple near misses, we came down the mountain pass and hit the hot and sticky  Caribbean lowlands.  From there the towns became fewer and fewer, the paved road eventually dissipated into gravel, then dirt, and finally, we were at a small boat landing in the middle of a banana plantation.

We pushed off from the boat dock and made our way down a narrow waterway with the rainforest

See the croc?
                                    See the croc?

teeming on all sides, muddy waters, and crocodiles sunning themselves on the shore. The waterway was littered with rocks, trunks, and submerged tree branches. Some of the trunks that had been brought to shore had tribal faces carved into them, almost as if to warn the boaters of their trespassing.  From the incessant Cicada bugs to parakeet canopy chatter, the sounds were amazing…  The only thing not Jurassic about this experience were the missing dinosaurs.

Everything was going well until we had to make a tight pass between two tree trunks.  Our boat was about halfway through when there was a big clunk and the motor killed.  An eerie, dead silence shuddered through the boat. The casual chatter came to an abrupt halt.  We were stopped dead in our tracks, no paddles/lifejackets, and muddy waters with who knows how many predators.   I was recalling the tribal carvings and wondering if this was a trap when I heard a splash.  Our “captain” had just abandoned ship.  Maybe he knew something we didn’t know? 

Instinctively, I was waiting for an ensuing crocodile attack, however, the captain emerged the splash, standing in water that was barely knee deep.  How could this be?  We had just seen Jesus Christ lizards that could run on the surface of the water, but this was unprecedented. Was he an X-men living in exile? He must be on a tree branch or something, I thought, but then he walked right up along side the boat and began washing the place where the clunk had happened.  “I don’t like it when they critique me.” he chuckled, as he passed by on his way to the front of the boat, whereas as if were the routine, he grabbed the front of the boat and pulled us through the rest of the pass.

What could possibly be in that water??
         What could possibly be in that water??

After a while it turned into a guessing game as to how he would navigate the hazards.  I began to notice how he instinctively stayed away from the sandy side of the canal and kept us close to the rocky edge.  You could tell he had some experience, or at least instincts when it came to this waterway.  I’d find out later that the water level was at a record low, and that only suffering one engine killing clunk was actually pretty impressive. 

Shortly after that, we exited the narrow waterway and entered a more traditional river way.  We began to notice scant signs of civilization along the banks which were mostly boat landings surrounded by a few homes on stilts.  We pulled into one of the landings to drop off some passengers and the silence was deafening.  There were no noisy motorcycles, or loud busses that I had grown accustomed to in my town.  There was peace and quiet.  This would continue as we made our

Tiny towns...
                                       Tiny towns…

way to Tortuguero, with the exception of a few single engine fishing boats, we were the only ones making a wake.  The fisherman all used canoes and the most sophisticated ones had small electric motors to drift in and out of the river inlets and marsh areas.

When the captain docked us in Tortuguero, we could all let out a sigh of relief, this officially concluded our adventure for the day.  I cherished that sigh as I knew it would only last a few days until we got back on the boat to journey out of Tortuguero and back to the paved land. 

Tortuguero itself was rather boring in comparison to the arrival.  Here are some pictures from the stay:

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           Like I said, a relatively boring town
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                               Tortuguero beach
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         Night critter in downtown Tortuguero
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                        Main Street
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                  Getting gas for the boat
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        Power lines over the river, only source of                                      electricity for town
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                             Welcome man?
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       When you reach the end of the                                 trail….