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Rara Avis: Into the Tree-Tops
by Ronda Green

August/Agosto 1995

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It was pointed out to me that there has never been an accident in the canopy cable-car, which is hardly true of driving on Costa Rica's roads.

'The Road from Hell' one visitor calls it in the Rara Avis guest book: a steeply winding trail of slippery, sloppy mud that no 4 wheel drive can tackle. Visitors to this remote forested region of Costa Rica generally travel for about four hours in a wagon pulled by a tractor, holding tightly to the bars on the sides to avoid a broken nose when tossed around every few seconds or so. The day of my trip the driver had to hop out now and then with a shovel, digging through the slop to find something his tractor wheels could grip onto.

Why do so many travelers willingly put their backs and stomachs through this experience? Well, actually the wagon ride is in itself a part of the adventure: you certainly know you are going to somewhere remote and very different by the time you arrive!

The philosophy behind the establishment of Rara Avis is another of its draw cards. Amos Bien, on visiting Costa Rica years ago, was alarmed at the rate of disappearance of rainforests outside of the national parks and other reserves. The result of much thought and time and energy was Rara Avis, a forested property on the edge of the extensive Braulio Carrillo National Park dedicated to trying out projects which may become economic successes while not destroying forests the way cattle-ranching and other more common local practices are doing.

Projects include the establishment of a tree seed nursery, a WWF- sponsored butterfly-raising venture for European markets (not one of Amos' own projects but he is playing host to it) and the raising of small shade-adapted plant species as potential house-plants and lines for cane furniture and other products (the production of these in the understory can be enhanced without disturbing forest canopy). Ecotourism with meals, walking tracks and naturalist guides is provided, and accommodation and other facilities for visiting researchers. Various other projects are under consideration (I think the idea of raising pacas - native rodents looking a bit like overgrown guinea-pigs - to supply restaurants was scrapped because of the animals' aggressive behaviour towards each other).

I was keen to visit Rara Avis for all of the above reasons, and also for the chance to ride Don Perry's cable-car into the canopy of the rainforest. So much of the life in the forest happens way above our heads where we never see it while walking the trails, so the chance to see the forest from the vantage point of monkeys, fruit-eating birds and something like 80% of forest invertebrates is quite exciting. Don had tried many ways of reaching the tree-tops - some safer than others - to study the animals living there, and when he sought support for his proto-type radio-controlled cable-car Amos was pleased to provide the site and a government grant provided the financial backing.

Before riding you have to sign a dreadful form (the cable-car was after all constructed primarily for research rather than tourism): something like 'I, Ronda J. Green, being an Australian citizen of Passport no. .... acknowledge that this is an experimental device with few safety features .... in case of accident, prompt medical attention may not be available ... in case of death, my heirs and successors will not hold Rara Avis responsible ...' etc. But it was pointed out to me that there has never been an accident in the canopy cable-car, which is hardly true of driving on Costa Rica's roads.

Two young Dutch herpetologists were staying at Rara Avis at the time, studying the poisonous coral snakes and their harmless mimics. They were also the temporary operators of the cable-car, and as I and my co-rider were being buckled in they gave us a some instructions.

'If we wave like this,' they said, 'it means the engine has broken down and we might have to leave the two of you swinging up there for a while as we try to fix it. If we wave like this, it means we can't fix it and you'll have to haul yourselves back with this rope here. If you see us waving like this it means the cable is breaking and ...'

'The what?' I interrupted in some alarm.

'Oh, I don't mean the main cable.'

'What if the main one does break?'

'Well then you will be in trouble. But don't worry!'

Moments later we were swinging up and away from the cliff, up through the tree-tops, amidst luxurious bromeliads and other canopy-loving epiphytes festooning the branches, and bright-colored hummingbirds darting between flowers not seen from down below. On through the branches and leaves, stopping now and then to sway gently back and forth and alternately appreciate the fascination of the myriad of life-forms surrounding us and glance apprehensively towards the rollicking boulder-studded stream so far below us. A couple of times we were lowered through the canopy a few meters or so, then raised for a continuation of our journey towards the roaring waterfall. Then we were lowered beside it for a close-up view. Marvelous!

Two levels of ecotourism accommodation have been established - cheap lodgings at El Plastico at the forest edge and more comfortable quarters at Waterfall Lodge deep in the forest. Three hearty and delicious meals are served each day at the little restaurant near the lodge, meals that are sometimes interrupted by interesting creatures - for instance a baby boa constrictor that I got the chance to hold (very muscular for its size in comparison with young pythons I've held in Australia) and the intriguing lantern-bug which looks like a moth with a full-sized peanut (double, complete with shell) for a head.

Walking trails lead for miles through the forest, and you can go with a guide or set off on your own (they pack lunch for you if you decide on a full day's wanderings). Make sure you bring a change of long pants - even with rain-cape and hood plus knee-length rubber boots it is impossible to stay dry while exploring these trails, and sitting down to dinner at night is really more pleasant if you're not in soggy mud-splattered clothes. If you're planning a trip (and if you're interested in tropical forests I highly recommend you do so if you get the chance) make sure you ask at some stage about transport and accommodation not only before the tractor ride (which leaves from and returns you to the small village of Horquetas) but also for the end of your stay, as I was told that my experience of arriving back in Horquetas half an hour after the last bus leaves is more the rule than the exception. No real problem - a small group of taxis gather to take you to the nearest bus route, a town with hotels or other local ecotourism accommodation.

 

Sadly, since this article was written in 1995, the cable car service is no longer available at Rara Avis, though there are plenty of other adventurous treks available. Do visit! The author can be contacted via email at Ronda.Green@mailbox.gu.edu.au. For more info on Rara Avis, check out the Rara Avis website: http://www.rara-avis.com/

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