Costa Rica wins over a reluctant eco-friend

By Marlene Nadle
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2011

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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — I am the ultimate urbanite, but in a fluke of friendship and opportunity, I was on my way to the rain forest.

The transition from my city habitat to all that greenery was gradual. The first stop was in San Jose at an old Victorian mansion that had been turned into the Hotel Grano de Oro. It felt familiar with its dark wood paneling and gourmet restaurant. I would have been happy to stay there and let the others run around in the jungle but that wasn’t to be. At an unseemly hour, I was dragged from my bed and packed into a van with a bunch of environmentalists.

I dozed as we headed west on our way to the Pacific coast. Every time I opened an eye the surrounding mountains were properly covered in green. I was lulled back into my sleep-deprived stupor by the drone of conversation covering the ecological globe — from the possibilities for solar panels in the Caribbean to the news that when Ghanaian villages got more light at night the birth rate went down. After that I heard no more.

I was awakened when the van stopped in Orotina and I was expected to get out and look at the crocodiles beneath a bridge. Spread along the mud banks of the River Tarcoles, they seemed as lethargic as I and moved only when raw chicken parts were tossed down to them by one of the employees of what apparently was a tourist site.

Nearby was a string of stands filled with local fruits. Mangos, papayas, oranges, and watermelons were being served in bite-sized pieces. A man with a machete was chopping the tops off coconuts. He stuck in a straw and passed them to the health-conscious people from my van.

The stop reminded me that we were moving into the more tropical low land, closer to the rain forest. Our base would be the eco-friendly Arenas Del Mar hotel. I imagined a collection of wooden shacks where I would have to pump a bicycle to generate enough power for a hot shower. Was I ever wrong.

Arenas Del Mar may have been in the rain forest, but the pampering started the moment the van entered the property. An electric golf cart waited to take us uphill so we would not have to walk. In my suite, the satin-covered bed was piled high with pillows and a Jacuzzi waited behind a screen of giant fauna. I was beginning to think that traveling green might be fun.

The real test came the next morning when I had to deal with the rain forest in its rawer state. Fortunately, we did not go to some undiscovered wilderness where we we would have had to hack our way through. Instead we went to the semicivilized jungle of Manuel Antonio National Park to hike along wide, well-maintained paths that ran past a pristine beach shaped like a shepherd’s crook. Here, even a reluctant nature traveler could see wildlife close up.

Sightings were aided by Yanan Andres, our guide, who had a keen knowledge of animals. He also had an enormous telescope and was always shouting things like, “Quick! Come! There is a three-toed sloth in that tree.’’ I was usually the last to arrive and would have preferred to be the sloth, which slept 18 hours a day.

Yet, even in the park, my street smarts paid off. My city habit of staying safe by looking on all sides when I walk meant I was the first to spot the troop of white-faced monkeys. That was my last contribution to the day’s expedition.

The next day I drew a firm line. I refused to go zipping through the jungle canopy with my companions. I went to wave them off, and waited for their return on a bench at nearby Look Out Point. I could be green sitting still. The tranquillity of the rolling land began to seep into my bones. I must have started giving off a different aura because suddenly a black and red butterfly settled on my open book. Nature was starting to get personal and I felt a small connection to its creatures.

Back in the van, I joked about being a nature convert. In any case, I was less grumpy about the plan to visit another rain forest, which wasn’t hard to find in this ecology-conscious country, where 75 areas have been protected in the past 30 years. The group picked Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast. We traveled across land and at Cano Blanco boarded a launch that took us up the dark-water canals that crisscross the primeval region. The forest pressed close and seemed impenetrable. The place belonged to the animals. The swimming manatees and the jaguars in the bush were as indifferent to us as I had been to them.

At the rustic Mawamba Lodge, I was drawn to the hammock near the lagoon to watch the pink birds that were more beautiful than the plastic flamingos I had seen on Brooklyn, N.Y., lawns. One night we were told it was possible to see green turtles nesting on a nearby beach. It happens from July to October. Our timing was lucky, and I went with my companions that night.

The expedition was run by the park rangers and carefully controlled. We discovered a turtle beginning to dig her nest, and I could watch her eggs dropping into the sand. It was something green turtles had been doing since the time of the dinosaurs. That her kind had survived for so long filled me with awe.

The next day, instead of sitting comfortably by the Mawamba pool, I walked a short path through the rain forest to find the butterfly farm. The room-size cages were a constant motion of black and red and tiger-striped butterflies. I entered one cage to sit and watch the swirl of colors. This time one of the tiger-striped beauties came to sit on my notebook, returning three times to the perch.

It seemed to be trying to tell me, “Attention must be paid.’’

Marlene Nadle can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay
Hotel Grano de Oro
Calle 30 (between Avenidas 2 and 4)
San Jose
Forty-room boutique hotel in Victorian mansion with a gourmet restaurant, Gilded Age elegance, and green consciousness. Doubles $130-$190, suites $245 or $355.
Mawamba Lodge
A quarter mile north of Tortuguero Village
011-506-2709-8181, 506-2293-8181
In the rain forest between the canal and the Caribbean, serves ample buffet meals, and has a pool. Package deals include transportation from San Jose, lodging, meals, and canal tours: $330 per person for three days and two nights in a double room.
Arenas del Mar
Follow the main Quepos road to the entrance of Manuel Antonio National Park and then the signs to Arenas del Mar
Luxury resort in the rain forest with the highest rating for sustainability, a good restaurant, spa, and private Pacific beach. Doubles $320-$360, suites $320-$610.
What to do
Manuel Antonio National Park
Just off the main Quepos road
Walk the easy trails and nature watch. Admission $10. An English-speaking guide from Iguana Tours can increase both the numbers of animals spotted and the knowledge gained from the hike. Iguana Tours, 011-506-2777-2052,, $48 per person. Private tours can be arranged.
Take a zip-line trip through the canopy. Titi Canopy Tour, at a forest reserve contiguous with the park, 506-2777-3130,, $55 per person.
Tortuguero National Park
Tours are included in most package deals offered by the lodges here. An independent tour and guide can be arranged through the information center located across from the Catholic church in Tortuguero Village, 011-506-2709-8011, or the ranger station at Cuatro Esquinas just south of the village, 011-506-2709-8086. A two-hour boat tour is about $15 and general admission to the park is $10.
Go on a night tour of nesting green turtles. Most lodges organize this for about $30. Find independent tours and guides for about $20 through the Information Center or the ranger station.