March 5, 2014

Our Costa Rica Adventure

Schricker,-Mary-Dec2010By Mary Schricker Gemberling

With a negative 15 degrees on the morning of January 3, we drove out our snow packed driveway toward the Bloomington, Illinois airport. Little did we know that our adventure to Costa Rica and Panama would take place during the Polar Vortex that would soon engulf much of the United States? After an uneventful five hour flight, Gary and I arrived in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital city, home to about one million people. For us it was a stopping off point on our way to the rain forest, the main destination of most sightseers to Costa Rica, the most visited country in Central America. The Costa Rican rainforests have suffered from incursions by agriculture, logging, and cattle farming, but they are still home to the majority of the nation’s biodiversity. With more species per square mile than anywhere else, Costa Rica still has thousands of species of flora and fauna that scientists have yet to name. With only .1 percent of the world’s landmass, the country contains over 4 percent of the world’s biodiversity! Costa Rica’s biological diversity is a result of its tropical location, its varied topography and the many microclimates resulting from the combination of mountains, valleys, and lowlands.

After a restful night in San Jose’s Grano de Oro Hotel we traveled four hours over land and water to reach the roadless, remote region of Tortuguero. In 1975, the Costa Rican government established Tortuguero National Park to protect the endangered Sea Turtle population. The hamlet of Toruguero, on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, is a pleasant place with 600 inhabitants, two churches, three bars and a handful of souvenir shops. The Manatus Lodge, nestled in the natural beauty of the rainforest, was luxurious and tempted our palates with international and gourmet Caribbean fusion cuisine. The informed and skilled boat guides steered us through narrow canopies and canals, observing fauna and flora indigenous to the area. A sense of tranquility, permeated only by the unfamiliar sounds of forest, hazed the atmosphere. It was truly a unique and extraordinary experience!

After two restful days we were transported once again by boat and car towards the northwestern plains of Costa Rica. Cloud forests, rain forests, volcanoes, thermal springs, white-water rivers, waterfalls, coffee and banana plantations, and rolling farmland combine to create the vast landscape that makes up this region. The Arenal Nayara Hotel & Gardens, at the foot of the Arenal Volcano was our next destination. At 1,680 meters (5,512 feet), the Arenal Volcano is one of the 300 volcanic points in Costa Rica. Volcanologists estimate Arenal’s age at around 4,000 years. Dormant for at least 400 years, it blew on July 29, 1968 after an earthquake shook the area. Now in a resting state, the volcano as well as waterfalls, vast nature preserves, great rafting rivers, and an astonishing array of birds attract visitors from around the world. Our two adventure packed days in the area included rafting down the Peña’s Blancas River, zip lining through the rain forest canopy, horseback riding along the rocky trails between La Fortuna and Monteverde, and finally soaking in the luxurious Hot Springs at the foot of the volcano. It was an incredibly exciting two days set in an magnificent setting!

As our week in Costa Rica was drawing to a close, we once again found ourselves on the winding roads heading back to the Grano de Oro Hotel in San Jose. Huge banana, pineapple, papaya and coffee plantations dotted the country’s landscape. We also saw a variety of other crops such as oranges, lemons, mangoes, potatoes, and cabbage grown on both individual as well as huge corporate farms. All of these fruits and vegetables are found fresh in markets and restaurants throughout the country. Traditional foods like plantains, a type of cooked green banana; carambola or star fruit; chayote, a potato-like starch; and gallo pinto, cilantro and onion flavored black beans and rice are all foods not likely to be found on our American dinner table. With over 910 miles of coastline bordering the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean Seas, Costa Rica’s seas are sources of some of the freshest fish and seafood in the world. Combine this with the abundance of fruits and vegetables found in the rich fertile inland valleys and the dining throughout our trip was a unique culinary adventure.

Next month, Panama, both a parallel and dichotomy of Costa Rica!

Mary, a retired educator and former Seniors Real Estate Specialist, is the author of two books, The West End Kid and Labor of Love; My Personal Journey through the World of Caregiving (available at ).