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The verdant joys of Costa Rica

Published 10/21/2009 12:00 AM

For as long as I've known my colors, green has been my favorite. At the risk of dating myself, I'll own that that's long before it became a code word for respecting the natural environment.

After decades of loving green, I found myself, through a combination of impulse and serendipity, in a place suffused with lavish exhibits of every natural variation of the hue. Eight days in Guanacaste and nearby regions of northwestern Costa Rica wasn't nearly enough, but the trip I took there in July with my husband, our daughter and her dear friend and college roommate was the best vacation I've ever had.

The mountains, forests, villages, coffee and cattle farms, Pacific beaches, geological phenomenon and animals -- including one howler monkey in particular -- in this verdant place all left me with new eyes for what the color green could be, both literally and metaphorically.

A nation of about 4 million people with one of the highest standards of living in Latin America, Costa Rica's popularity as an eco-tourism destination has been fueled both by marketing that has proffered the country's green image worldwide, and by the reality of the place. More than one-quarter of the country's land is part of some national park or preserve. About 90 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources -- mainly hydroelectric, wind and geothermal power from volcanoes -- and the country's per-person carbon footprint is small compared to this country's.

Buses, bicycles, motorbikes and horses are the prevalent and, because of rugged roads, practical forms of transportation for many Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves. Life expectancy and literacy rates are on par with the United States. The democratic government is stable, and the country's biodiversity is among the world's richest.

My admiration for what this small nation has accomplished, though, isn't what took me there. I'd talked to friends who'd visited the country, and loved it, but never seriously contemplated going there myself. Then a year ago last fall, my husband and I found ourselves at a fund-raising event for a nonprofit group my husband volunteers with. During an auction of donated items, a condominium in Coast Rica owned by a local businesswoman was offered for use for a week after July 1.

Knowing nothing about the particulars of the condo's location or amenities, we made a spontaneous decision to put in a bid, and, to our surprise, we won. Since it had three bedrooms, we decided to invite our daughter and her friend, who both graduated from college in June.

We flew into Liberia, the small airport nearest the fishing and scuba-diving town of Playa del Coco, where the condo was located. A rented SUV with four-wheel drive -- a feature guidebooks wisely recommended -- took us into the dusty little beach town, aptly described by one of the write-ups as having "languid, slightly trashy charm." Its green image notwithstanding, parts of Costa Rica have attracted more than their share of developers building the kinds of pastel condominium and resort complexes you could find in most any tropical destination, or U.S. tourist town, for that matter.

Playa del Coco is no exception. The very nice condo we enjoyed for that week was not the sort of rustic, authentically Tico place an eco-tourist, unable to live with some ambivalence and contradictions, would choose.

For our first full day, we decided that, in our overtired, jet-lagged state, a modest agenda would be best. We headed to the nearby town of Hermosa for a better swimming and sunbathing beach and started to soak in some of the ambient Tico culture -- soccer along the water's edge, families perched in the mangroves instead of the sand with towels and food baskets, vendors carrying trays of ceviche served in little cups.

I also quickly learned that the little bit of Spanish I knew, and my Spanish-English dictionary, would be invaluable. Many Ticos, especially in the biggest tourist areas, speak some English, but it's better to know at least a bit of Spanish if you want to get beyond the well-beaten paths.

All of us were content making up our agenda as we went, but we had one common goal: We wanted to see monkeys.

In a restaurant on our first night, a young woman from Eastern Europe who worked there as a sort of concierge told us about a road called the "monkey trail" a few miles outside of Coco. She drew us a map.

The following day, after a few wrong turns, we found the rutted dirt road. Several slow, bumpy miles later, past settlements of modest, but comfortable-looking homes with chickens in the front yard, then a cattle pasture surrounded by forest, we stopped to listen. Howler monkeys somewhere in the distant forest were calling to one another, sounding like something between a wolf's howl and an owl's hoot. We walked along hoping in vain for a sighting. Later we learned that their distinctive calls, which we would hear several more times during our stay, travel for miles.

Another day of exploring and fruitless monkey-hunting took us to a beautiful, remote coastal refuge called Bahia Junquillal. There, my husband and daughter spotted a toucan and iguanas. Comical red sand crabs crawled along a beach left mostly in its natural, leafy state. We decided next on a trip to a cloud forest, which is basically a mountain rain forest. One of our guidebooks dubbed the most famous one, Monteverde, as a "crowd forest" because of its popularity, so we settled on another, Santa Elena.

The drive from Coco to Santa Elena was an adventure in itself, up narrow, unpaved mountain roads where one of the country's signature Zebu cows or a careening school bus or a breathtaking mountain view might be awaiting around the next hairpin turn. The journey took hours longer than we'd expected from looking at the map -- a common experience for the uninitiated -- but we did finally arrive at Santa Elena with enough time for a hike before the park would close for the day.

Along the damp and sometimes slippery trail, we were enveloped in shades of green in the trees and ferns ranging from velvety with black undertones, to bright and shiny with dew, to mossy soft. Huge electric blue morpho butterflies and vividly colored flowers made for surprising contrasts in the otherwise green-saturated world.

The next day took us to a park called Rincon de la Vieja, or "corner of the old woman" in hopes of seeing both an active volcano and monkeys. Again, the monkeys teased us with far-off calls, but never came into view, and we didn't arrive early enough to meet park rules for starting the long hike to the volcano.

We decided instead on a hike into the forest past the park's other geothermal features -- a mini volcano, or volcancito, fumaroles that spew mysterious sulphur clouds, bubbling mud pots and water pots -- along with a cooling waterfall, armies of amazing leafcutter ants, rushing rivers, strange, sinewy trees called strangler figs and one very large snake coiled on a log beside the trail.

That night, checking one of our books, we identified the snake from our photos as a ferde-lance, known to be one of the world's most poisonous and aggressive. We had been about four feet away.

The next day, still hoping to see the monkeys that had serenaded us on our hike, we took a guided horseback ride through a different section of the same forest. The trek led to hot springs, where we stopped for a dip, then back into the canopy. Our guide, Miguel, a sheathed machete at his side should we meet another fer-de-lance, pointed out a scarlet macaw in one tree as we passed.

I started to think maybe it was time to give up on seeing a monkey. There were parks in other parts of the country where monkey sightings are pretty much guaranteed, but these places were too far given the time we had left. We'd seen so many other wonderful sights, and we'd heard monkeys, after all.

After an afternoon wandering some of the shops in Coco, we decided to check out Playa Ocotal, the beach town just to the south heralded for having left much coastal forest in tact as it developed. Walking one of the roads near the beach, we started to hear that haunting call again. Following it toward a wooded area, I looked up and spotted a howler monkey, high in a tree. For 45 minutes or so we watched him scramble from branch to branch, rest, munch on leaves. At one point he clambered down to a low branch to peer directly into our faces.

As the sun began setting, the monkey was growing more obscured among the leaves. In the end, he gave us one last thrill -- he came into full view to scurry across a wire between one group of trees and another -- before disappearing into the darkness. I felt unbelievably lucky, and grateful.

After that, we had just one more full day. We chose what we thought we be a low-key, easy trip to another refuge where sea turtles hatched. It turned into yet another adventure through gorgeous scenery and rugged terrain. Along the deceptively long, circuitous road to Ostional, we ended up having to use our SUV's four-wheel drive capabilities several times to traverse some substantial streams.

We finally arrived at Ostional to find a delightful restaurant in an out-of-the-way village for lunch. Behind it stretched a wide, wave-crested beach strewn with hundreds of empty shells of newly hatched olive ridley sea turtles. At night when the turtles emerge, visitors can go on the beach only with a guide.

To end our trip, we drove a short distance from Ostional to one final destination, Playa Nosara, and stayed for the sunset over the Pacific.