Sounds of the rainforest
Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
Photo by Jennifer Merrick
After an adventure-filled day exploring sites around Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica, we all felt a little dozy on the way back to our resort for the evening. So, we were almost stunned when our van pulled over onto the shoulder of a main road. Had the vehicle broken down? Flat tire?
“Howler monkeys,” announced our unflappable guide, Rhyan Cruz. He grabbed his ever-present telescope and led us out of the van. Sure enough, there were a troop of primates balancing on the hydro wires and bouncing around in the trees that lined the road. The monkeys lived up to their name, vocalizing loud, deep, barking bellows. Cruz set up his telescope, and we did our best to get close-up shots of the playful creatures. But, like monkeys do, bounded out of view soon as the focus was right.
Howler monkeys are one of 250 species of mammals in Costa Rica, a country with some of the highest biodiversity in the world. Located in Central America north of Panama, over a quarter of this small country—the size of West Virginia—is protected wilderness.
Though plentiful, some wildlife could be hard to spot without someone like Cruz, who as required for all guides in Costa Rica, has a license and extensive training. With a degree in eco-tourism and over eighteen years of experience, Cruz not only had a sharp eye but an expert ear.
“We usually hear wildlife before we see them,” he told us. Howler monkeys were obvious, but other creatures less so. He explained that the sound of the white-face monkey came from the throat. “Caw,” he mimicked.
We saw acrobatic spider monkeys, named for their spider-like appearance when they dangle by their tails from trees, earlier that day at Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. This 600-hectare property featured sixteen bridges—ten fixed and six hanging—and led us through the cloud forest high above the jungle floor.
Back in the van, we headed to Buena Vista Lodge, located in the more remote northern part of the country near the border of Nicaragua. Situated on the edge of the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, this eco-property offered plenty of opportunities to see and hear wildlife.
The next day, as soon as I opened the door of our basic but comfortable room, I was greeted by a large iguana basking in the sun. And as I continued up to breakfast, several unusual-looking creatures I had never seen before crossed in front of my path. They had striped tails that stood upright and a long, pointed snout for a nose.
I learned later that they are Coatis—tree-climbing mammals as common here as racoons are to us.
Activities at Buena Vista Lodge range from ziplining through the rainforest and mountain water slide to horseback riding and hiking. I opted for horseback riding, even though I had little equestrian experience; and I was grateful that my gentle horse was calm, because I certainly wasn’t. After about ten minutes of trying not to hyperventilate, I relaxed and looked around. Rewarded with incredible views of lush valleys, I breathed deeply and even loosened my white-knuckled grip on the reigns long enough to take some pictures.
Cruz was doing what he does best—listening. At one point, he motioned for us to stop and pointed at the bushes. And there was the most extraordinary bird I had ever seen in the wild—a Yellow-throated Toucan.
“I heard it,” he told us later. “Toucans crunch.”
Besides the wildlife, what impressed me most about the Buena Vista Lodge was its commitment to sustainability. In the 1980s, the property was a cattle farm, and few had even heard of the concept of “eco-tourism.”
“To be honest, people thought the owners were crazy at the beginning,” said Medardo Moscoso, the environment director at the lodge. “How could there be a hotel in such a remote place?” But the owners let some of the pastures return to the forest and constructed a few stone buildings.
“And people started coming and were impressed to see the wildlife,” said Moscoso. Approximately 70 percent of the property’s 2,000 acres is being reforested, and the remaining is used as pastures.
Moscoso explained that they produced much of what the resort needed—vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs, and even the soap for the seventy-six rooms. The soap was made from the waste cooking oil from the kitchen and was just one of the environmental initiatives he managed.
“You know the food you’ve been eating was cooked with farts?”
“No idea,” I answered, glad I had finished my lunch.
We were shown the lodge’s “biodigester.” This contraption, the first of its kind in Costa Rica, fermented manure, producing heat that was piped through the resort. Other projects included working with native species of bees and monitoring trails with camera traps to ensure activities had limited impact to wildlife. Moscoso created a “sustainability tour” for guests to see the resort’s innovative initiatives.
There was a lot to explore on our own at the resort as well. A thirty-five-minute hike or fifteen-minute tractor ride away was the beautiful Pacayas Waterfall. A little farther were the thermal hot springs, where we soaked away tired muscles in its natural pools and slathered on mineral muds that softened the skin.
All around was lush vegetation, exotic birds, butterflies, and creatures like agoutis that look like guinea pigs with long legs. There were sounds, too, but I’d need a few more lessons from our guide before I could tell you what I was listening to.
Pura Vida at home
Pura Vida is an expression you hear often in Costa Rica. Simply translated it means “pure life,” but it also embodies a philosophy of optimism and living life to its fullest.
At the moment, we’re not able to travel to Costa Rica, however, here are some ways to experience a little of its spirit and culture at home until it is safe to visit again.
Cook: Mild but flavorful, traditional Costa Rican food is a comfort and a pleasure. Learn how to make sopa negra (black bean soup), gallo pinto (literally meaning spotted rooster, this rice and bean dish is a staple), arroz con leche (rice pudding), and other specialities from online recipe videos.
Care: Take five minutes to breathe deep with a meditation video from yoga instructor Anabel Miranda from Yoga Revolution Academy (yogarevolutionacademy.com/our-team).
Craft: Native to Costa Rica, sloths are arguably one of the cutest animals in existence. An online tutorial shows you how to make a sustainable little sloth out of a toilet paper roll. There are also coloring pages.
All of these activities can be found on Costa Rica’s official tourism page: visitcostarica.com/en/costa-rica/balance
Jennifer Merrick is an award-winning freelance writer, photographer, and avid traveler based in Toronto.