Going Places: Tales from the road: Postcards from Central America

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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By Jim Gould

July 6: At the Monteverde Biological Reserve

In Costa Rica, the unpaved road is eco-tourism's best friend. The road to Monteverde from Fortuna is unpaved, ungraded, and undriveable. Some 120 kilometers of mud, and bowling-ball-sized rocks that would kick the ass out of most four-wheel-drive vehicles, no matter how good they look in those 30-second commercials.

Four hours of rattling and heaving and jolting. Even Gabino, the A.J. Foyt of Tico guides, can't make it in less than four hours. Even though his specially outfitted minivan knows only two speeds--off and full throttle.

Unpaved roads. Not because Costa Rica is some backwater pre-auto developing country. There's no pavimiento in the hinterlands by design. The arduous trip forces touristas to spend at least a few nights here, which means guaranteed cash flow for the hotels, lodges, cabinas, restaurants, and cafes that spread outside the boundaries of this high-altitude rainforest reserve like a free-market fungus.

Tanner and I met Gabino through his only paying customer this week, a 31-year-old Austrian named Mathilde. She's just finished an 18-month stint as a Red Cross nurse in the refugee and prison camps in Burundi, ministering to both victims and victimizers of the Rwanda civil war. Tanner and the quick-witted, easy-smiling Mathilde hit it off, so we joined the Austrian and Gabino on a two-day, 40-kilometer trek through the Monteverde cloudforest. Mathilde has already paid $500 for a three-parks-in-eight-days tour. We throw Gabino another $75. Gas, food, and park fees are additional.

The Monteverde cloudforest preserve is an island in the sky, surrounded by ranching country that was once rainforest, too. This private preserve was started by researchers and local Quaker immigrants, who snapped up the last remaining chunk of high-altitude rainforest from encroaching farmers and ranchers. They now encourage tourism in a big way to pay the bills.

It's called cloudforest because we are literally in the clouds. The rains never cease. The canopy towers 100 feet above us. Primary forest, the stuff of field biologists' and loggers' wet dreams. Orchids, ferns, and palms of such number and diversity that despite Gabino and Tanner's botanical expertise, only family names are recognized, few genus or species.

We trek through dynamic muck found only on the Continental Divide, the spine of the land bridge, and we climb across the Pacific slope to the Atlantic slope with little ceremony. Except more rain. Now we're seeing trees, ferns, birds, and animals we didn't see two hours ago. Including a fer-de-lance, a poisonous snake longer than I am tall, as thick around as my arm. Spotted sleeping just a foot off the trail. Gabino pokes it with a stick to give the gringos a good show. It springs away.

Mathilde shakes her head. In short order, she finds that Gabino, our machisto guide with the black Marlboro baseball cap, has forgotten to pack a snake-bite kit, a first-aid kit, a machete, and half the food for our 24-mile, four-meal hike. His guide credibility is washed away with the rain, which comes down colder and harder than ever.

By the next day, after 28 kilometers of mud and eight hours of rain, Mathilde and Gabino have stopped speaking to each other. Mathilde instead turns to Tanner to learn about the hummingbirds (named green-crowned brilliants, they are purple-throated mountain gems), purple doves, king birds, flycatchers, and chestnut-headed oropendolas that play above our heads. The 110-pound Mathilde turns to me for help fording a half-dozen streams.

Later, Gabino wants me for a talk, hombre to hombre, about that bull-headed Austrian who reminds him of his wife and how hard it is to please the goddamned touristas. What does she expect for $500? A slave? And I think the next big market in Costa Rica, after eco-tourism, will be self-help books and talk shows: Dear Eco-Jim: I beat my wife less but she still won't laugh at my howler monkey jokes. What do I do? Sincerely yours, Wretched in the Rainforest.

Later, I fall asleep to the pinball call of the oropendola bird, wondering if our guide, our own Norman Bates, is regretting not bringing his machete.

Next: Heading toward Nicaragua

Other info on travel in Central America

Notes of an accidental eco-tourist
Postcards from Central America. Our correspondent
rambles in search of answers to the eco-tourism myth.

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